In keeping with its tradition of putting on a beloved family-friendly production each holiday season, the 5th Avenue Theater just opened with Disney’s The Little Mermaid, playing through Dec. 31 before it continues to 10 more cities.
The real strength in this musical is its visual beauty and originality—with actors strung up on flying harnesses to appear as if they’re swimming through a gauzy backdrop of green sea and colorful, modern costumes that incorporate references ranging from punk rock to Carnival. The music and vocals are on point too, and really make signature songs like “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” come alive. The production manages to preserve Alan Menken’s original score with its Calypso vibe, while “She’s in Love,” sung by Ariel’s six mersisters (who later appear as princesses above sea level), spins us off into doo-wop territory. Movement is inspired as well, with lively choreography and a rhythmic edge. Case in point: Ariel (Diana Huey) continually oscillates her body to capture the sense of being in water (it’s really quite impressive).
My only complaint with Huey: She lacks an authentic pluck that the young mermaid is meant to embody, instead copping to the all-too-familiar trope of doe-eyed princess enraptured with Prince Charming. I wished desperately, with my 9-year-old daughter at my side, that the lure of the human world with its potential adventures was visibly yearned for as much as the Prince was (who is “so beautiful,” she giddily exclaims). The show mainly pays lip service to her feelings of discontent and desire for the unknown, which felt like a missed opportunity for Huey and the production. Prince Eric, however (Matthew Kacergis), does a swell job of convincing us that he’s looking for a partner with chutzpah, not just a pretty face. When Ariel finally meets him, but loses her voice via a curse by Ursula, we truly feel his disappointment at discovering that the woman he thought he’d fallen in love with is, in fact, a seemingly silly girl who’s no match for his independent spirit. Fortunately, as the two get to know each other, Ariel becomes less of a stereotypical princess, and we finally get a glimpse into her conflicted soul, even as she still pines for the kiss. When her voice finally comes back, it’s not just a relief to her and the Prince, but to the audience as well, as Huey’s vocal prowess is considerable. In that, she and Kacergis are truly well-matched.
Perhaps the best scenes of the show, though, revolve around Ursula (Jennifer Allen), the evil sea witch with fleshy, tentacled arms, a shock of blue-white hair, and an impressive vocal range. As characters Flotsam and Jetsam skate about her in the murkiest depths of the ocean, she brings pitch-perfect dark humor to songs like “Daddy’s Little Angel” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” and we crave more of her and her wicked ways. Likewise, Sebastian (Melvin Abston) provides trademark shtick, at times perhaps a little too thickly. Still, he gets the laughs he’s meant to, and helps to convey the sense that Ariel is a girl who dreams big and takes risks.
Other spot-on performances include a wisecracking Scuttle (Jamie Torcellini), Ariel’s seagull confidante, here fashioned as a kind of mad-scientist/Albert Einstein lookalike, and a feisty Chef Louis (Dane Stokinger)—the former delivering plenty of wry humor, the latter a big dose of slapsticky hoots.
Though the musical runs long at two hours and 20 minutes, it moves along briskly, awash in jokes and numbers that will melt the hearts of Little Mermaid fans young and old, and easily win over newbies. The Little Mermaid, 5th Avenue Theater, 1308 Fifth Ave., 5th avenue.org. $36 and up. Ends Dec. 31. email@example.com