I don’t consider myself a true fanatic about many things; 3-legged black cats, armadillos, dinosaurs, Jason Statham, REALLY good Crème Brulee… that’s about the sum total of things I throw a parade for. Oh and redheaded, singing MERMAIDS! Hear me out… you have to understand something. I mean really understand. As a redhead who spent far too much time singing to herself underwater during a competitive swimming career that lasted from age 5 to 18, as a girl/adultish-type woman who has always considered herself a princess for no real reason, and has spent countless hours collecting things she finds on the ground (despite the continual, gentle suggestions of others to please “not pick that up”), Ariel is kind of my spirit animal. When The Little Mermaid film came out in 1989 I was 14 and it was life changing. Never before had any Disney princess “spoken” to me before, but there I was up there on the screen. It was perfect. Okay, okay, okay, sure she’s not the most intelligent or empowered of heroines. If you look too close yes, she’s a bit of a whiny hoarder (albeit it a romantic whiny hoarder). We all have to overlook the somewhat troublesome fact that she falls in love with the very first human she sees, yes. Admittedly, the story-line took a back seat to the new style of animation at the time and she was more of a soft launch to the new Disney feminist shift we started to really see with Belle, but come on, how great is ARIEL!? Are you getting my point? Basically, we go into Broadway San Jose’s production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid with the highest of expectations and also incredibly high stakes. My biggest dread was that my childhood would be publicly dismantled in front of an audience of 2,000 people. Sadly, nightmares were realized. Send flowers and glue as I try to piece back my life post show.
Let’s start with the talent which can make or break a show in many cases regardless of any other obstacles or highlights. In a word; mediocre. Ariel had a good voice and was perky in the right ways, but couldn’t hold the whole show up herself. Ursula spoke most of her songs and I wasn’t impressed with her all-over-the-place Carol Channing/Drag Queen/homage to the film character rendition. Prince Eric was okay I guess, the chef – just okay, Triton on the weaker end of acceptable, Sebastian inconsistent and low energy, Scuttle was fine- but I find his character to be annoying which was made even more so by adding in a pointless song for him – the daughters were mostly unintelligible, and the ensemble looked tired and board for the most part.
Moving on to the show itself… now, I’m familiar with the edits that usually need to occur when a book or film is translated onto a big Broadway stage. While I don’t LIKE it, I understand for certain reasons, additions or deletions are a part of mounting a show. What I don’t need is 10+ new substandard songs (absolutely not the-otherwise-amazing-Alan-Menken’s best work) plus a number of reprises that do NOTHING but screw up the pacing and make it too long. As I already discussed, it’s not a terribly complex plot, we don’t need it all explained to us, it’s really pretty self-explanatory. KIDS understand it. I don’t need everyone to get their own internal monologue song. I just don’t. Less is more in this case, WAY LESS. The ultimate irony of that last sentence’s source is not lost on me, believe me.
The overall presentation of the substandard material was the most appalling of the evenings letdowns. The “big” production numbers in the first act, arguable the most well-known and anticipated number, Under the Sea had maybe a dozen, unidentified creatures on stage and a couple of poorly made fish puppets. The ensemble looked and moved more like birds at Carnival meets Vegas than anything this card-carrying member of the Monterey Bay Aquarium has ever seen. The show at this point, seemed to take a colorful, but totally cheap turn toward the abstract a la cirque du soleil instead of a truly enchanted, imaginative one. The single exception and honestly the best thing about the entire show were the colossal jellyfish puppets that appeared all too briefly. Their scale and the attention to texture and flow felt exactly right for about 7 seconds. They grasped the imaginative potential the show and there’s no doubt in my mind I would have liked the show had that kind attention to detail and creativity been applied to even half the production. I’ll be looking into ordering myself one of those for my underwater themed bedroom. You think I’m kidding. I’m as serious as a Portuguese Man of War.
Rivaling the disappointment of Under the Sea was the scarce and minimalist approach to Kiss the Girl. Besides Sebastian, Scuttle, Eric and Ariel, there were NO OTHER animals on stage. Not a single frog, turtle, cricket… not a puppet, person or effect…nada! This had me screaming inside my head…how are they making all that music and where the hell is all the romantic lagoon ambiance!? WHERE IS THE MUSIC SUPPOSED TO BE COMING FROM?! WHAT IN THE NAME OF ALL THINGS SACRED IS GOING ON!!!?
Skipping to the end of the play now, pardon my language but WTF. The last 20 minutes my jaw was stuck firmly in the open position as I watched a swirling sea of “its all gone terribly wrong” play out in front of my aging eyes. Rushed exposition replaced any semblance of storytelling and it was as if they all of a sudden realized that adding in so many additional, mediocre, unnecessary songs was making this children’s show WAY too long. Really? This wasn’t apparent after 90 minutes when we finally approach the intermission and Ariel has JUST GOTTEN LEGS!? The result was worse than having your Lifetime Achievement Oscar speech cut off by the orchestra. The mad dash to the end did no favors to the production and it needed a serious electric shock at that point even Flotsam and Jetsam couldn’t provide.
Let’s talk tech for two seconds; most notably, the fact the scenery was almost entirely two-dimensional, flat and unimpressive. Laughable in some places, actually. Such a missed opportunity. From the 8th row I could see every wire, wheel and scenery edge. What little craft there was on stage was sadly overshadowed by visible flaws and mechanics including a few visible mic packs, panty lines and scenery framework/ reinforcements. The lighting was sloppy and amateur. Much of it looked unintentional and the opening projections during the overture were in fact nauseating. The costumes in some respects might have been the best technical feature and yet there was very little vision and consistency with the design. It was functional over fanciful in most places and it should/could have been both.
Here’s a touring show. It presumably has a budget. Community theater companies have done this show already, so really, we expect a creative over-the-top spectacle for this tour in this space. It’s been a number of years since The Lion King wowed us on stage (not mind you with the story as much as with the genius visual interpretation and innovative craft used) and there’s been plenty of time to give us something equally fun and creatively visual. For a generation accustomed to CGI, its helpful (and maybe essential?) to let ingenuity and/or technology assist in storytelling, especially at the prices you pay for this type of show. This show missed the boat entirely in that regard. Except those jellyfish. Thank Poseidon for them.
So… maybe my opinion is just too biased in this instance. Maybe the fact I’m having an existential crisis is clouding my judgement too much. Maybe this story is more dated than I recognize. Maybe the edits ruin the original innocence and value for me. I know I’m harsh and in the moments I was able to separate from my own horror/dismay and observe the rest of the audience, they were laughing, clapping, and enjoying it. If you aren’t attached to the movie, if you’re under about 10 and if you can resist comparing it to other Broadway Disney shows like The Lion King, I suspect this could be an enjoyable night out. Sadly, for me I was drowning in wave after wave of uncontrollable criticism and dissatisfaction from beginning to end. Just 1 ½ jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for an underwhelming production, devoid of the magic one would expect from Disney and Broadway San Jose. Disney’s The Little Mermaid plays through October 1st at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown San Jose.