09 January 2008

Review (Theater): The Little Mermaid on Broadway

Genre: Musical / Fairy Tale

The Little Mermaid's appearance on Broadway marks the latest attempt in a string of productions at trying to translate a popular and classic Disney success across from animated film and onto the live stage. While past and some still current attempts have been admirable, none has made that translation well thoroughly and, I am sorry to say, The Little Mermaid is no exception. Stiff where it should have been fluid, short when it should have been full, and caricatured all over, the production in but few ways lives up to the great standards of its source material, Disney's masterpiece 1989 film; and, unbolstered by great acting or orchestrations, it could hardly have been commended more fulsomely.
My main complaint with the work is with the liberties that the writers took when adapting the play to the stage, for the changes figured more as a quite double-edged sword than a global improvement (or, even, maintenance of status quo). Putting aside my exacting qualms over their blundering of mythologies - Triton and Poseidon were not son and father and immortal gods cannot die(!) - I fall to (first) the metamorphosis laid upon the Ursula character, which, I'm guessing, was done as much for the musical adaptation as for the want to accommodate the actress portraying her, whose physique and vocal range quite differ from the film's Ursula's. Now, to be clear, I'm not lobbying against the fact that there were changes made to Ursula (or to any character for that matter) in general. Of course one cannot expect any trans-media adaptation to produce the story entirely unscathed; exact replication, especially one made so many years after the source material's creation, is a fool's hope; and alterations done in any such adaptation are often necessarily so for the simple matter of the differing media. A live Ursula, for example, could never be expected to capture the same exact swirling, oily avarice as an animated Ursula could; fluid tentacular movement and stroke-perfect energy would by far elude any actress trying to impersonate that Ursula in reality. So, the effects laid upon the Ursula of the show that had her seething in an embellished backstory akin to that of aging starlet whose heydays are days long gone by were interesting, potent, and not incongruous with the original. They gave the actress license to limit her movements, as a dramatic lay-about would do in expectation of being waited upon by her doting servants; plausibility to sing, albeit still grittily, within a higher range than the original, as a former tall and blond showgirl, long past her prime, would do; and most importantly great reason to act as saucily, cruelly, and sweetly underhandedly as she possibly could, exactly as a fame-obsessed, desperate has-been would do if given the chance to rekindle her glory. So then why why why was her dialogue written so fluffy and her demise so feeble? It was practically an offense to the character that she was hardly ever seductive or sadistic in her power over her servants Flotsam and Jetsam and it was clearly an offense that, for all her heighth and might, planning and deviation, she was such a push-over in the end - vanquished by the mere smashing of her huge, obviously delicate, and scandalously unprotected shell that was, not only so predictable for everyone in the audience miles beforehand that even the six-year-old girl in the row in front of me had guessed it by intermission, but also so inevitable for everyone in the production that even the actress playing Ursula hardly put up a fight in hope of preventing it! It was verily outrageous, especially considering the fact that Ursula has time and again been considered one of the most (wonderfully) vicious villains (if not the most vicious) in the entire Disney canon! And the writers' liberties only got worse from there on: Scuttle, the somewhat beloved slapstick reprieve from the heavy drama, was by light-years too far expanded and given two(!) solo songs neither of which had more substance than the stock fart joke and one of which was poised as the practical second-act opener! Sebastian, the moral guardian of the story, was quite awkwardly and rather interjectedly given what one can only assume was a lover; and Flotsam and Jetsam were demoted from slitheringly wicked servants/underlings to a a sort of bizarre/vaudevillian, comic duo. New song lyrics were at best fatuous and cake-easy and the anally symmetrical character tree added an unpleasant level of two-by-two match-y-match-iness and incest to the very present sexual undertones that the story inheres. Needless to say: I was somewhat less than thrilled by the blueprints.
And, like I mentioned earlier, the action/construction based on them was basically like spraying a whole lot of hairspray onto the open flame (of quality and integrity burning). Ms. Scott's (i. e., Ursula's) performance let on nothing of her slighted status, former celebrity, or acrid avarice for her return to the spotlight more than the little ditty "I Want the Good Times Back" (also known as I want the source material back) could muster. The song reeked of statutory design and show-tunes-y shimmer, and her singing of it and her other numbers was much more talking than actual harmonizing. Add to that the fact that she barely moved from what appeared to be stiffness and duress (likely due to the action-restrictions of her overly-ambitious costume), rather than deliberation and character meditation, and the fact that she maybe once out of five times emphasized the correct word in the line or phrase; and then you can approximate the level of her stage presence. Ariel (Ms. Boggess) was the wholly unremarkable, insipid and preening fluff that, I guess, they wanted her to be, her voice no where near the power or raw feeling that it is supposed to communicate; and Triton, her father, (Mr. Lewis) was generally quite weak and unimpressive, despite his scriptedly magnus animus and aggressive turns. The only performances that on the whole positively stood out to me were that of Mr. Burgess (i. e., Sebastian), though his lungs felt quite not powerful enough to support his two milestone numbers - he was visibly winded, skipping lyrics, during "Under the Sea" - and that of young Mr. D'Addario (i. e., Flounder), whose typical deficiencies as a child actor were in this show outshone by his strong singing voice and his marvellous ability to remain in character regardless of whether or not his actions be the current focal point of all the action on stage. However, I must add that in a better production the qualities of these two performances would have only been average and therefore probably would have not stood out to me so positively.
The musical score, especially during the first act, was frenetic and completely incoherent, as vaudeville(?!)-style stage numbers were filed in between the rich, orchestral original songs and (as) the whole tightly woven instrumental work of Mr. Menken was subjugated under the fatty weight of showtunes pop. At any moment, I was half-expecting, big-band would come out and bash the whole thing into unrecognizable distress; and my concerns were only mildly diluted by the (inventive?) reuse of the original latter-story instrumentals to flesh out the courtship phase of the story with some few new, actually congruous(!) songs.
The set design, light design, and costume design were beautiful, if you happened to be a tastelesss, artless seven-year-old girl particularly fond of neon pastels, glitter, and plastic jewelry. The exceedingly festooned, drug-store--nail-polish toned sets sizzled and cracked out the red end of the saturation meter immediately upon curtain up under the tartly warm red, yellow, and purple(?) lights - leaving little to nowhere for them to go during the intrinsically burstingly motivated scenes (e. g., "Under the Sea") - while the lights themselves discarded any sort of intelligent scheme that they otherwise might have achieved contrasting warm with cool hues, colors with their complements, benevolent with malevolent emotions, or dramatic with comedic moments. And the costumes, though all intricately worked and detailed, too often ascribed to that curious brand of half-prudish, half-parade-oriented kitsch that seems peculiar of Disney and its real-world 'imagineering' to be seriously, earnestly appreciated.
And the rest of the shows failings I must lump onto the director, Ms. Zambello, who for some reasons unbeknownst and unguessable by me, not only assumedly instructed results in the aforementioned degrees, qualities, levels, and manners, but also and moreover approved them for opening night.
No, no, Disney, you were not the exquisite fantasy-land of possibility for this prominent inner child this time. Whatever success you derive from this latest investment may only be from the good name that is the card that you play by rousing and redressing your classic masterpiece. And, I'm sure as there were the scores of critics also present at my Tuesday night's performance, my particular showing was not an anomaly.

Grade: C/ C-: Mediocre and disappointing

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