News Column

Stage review: CLO's 'Little Mermaid' makes splashy spectacle

July 11, 2013

YellowBrix

July 11--Come on in, the water's just fine -- glorious, in fact. "Disney's The Little Mermaid" splashes down at the Benedum Center with a grab bag of goodies for families hungering for all-age entertainment.

Pittsburgh CLO's magical production has all the Disney ingredients for success: attractive heroes in an against-all-odds romance, colorful sidekicks and a dastardly villain, plus a formula for staging that improves on the show's Broadway run. Lighting and scenery work in harmony with gorgeous costumes, constant movement and wire work so that scenes such as Ariel's rescue of a drowning Prince Eric become theatrical achievements. Heely-like roller shoes that were a staple of the Broadway show are rarely used here. Instead, the little mermaid Ariel and her friends go aerial, with wire work and flowing fabric creating a magical undersea world.

Jessica Grove, who played Laurey in CLO's "Oklahoma!" in 2007, makes a triumphant return to CLO in the title role. For "The Little Mermaid" to work, audience members must empathize with Ariel's longing for the world above the waves, Sebastian the crab's fussy, conflicted guardian, and all must buy into Ursula's wicked ways. Mission accomplished. Ms. Grove delivers Ariel's best-known song, "Part of Your World," while floating above the stage and never wavering on a note -- a feat of fearlessness and clever design.

Ariel, the beloved daughter of King Triton, is determined to check out the human world, and when she rescues a prince (Nick Adams) from drowning in one of the best effects of the night, love is in the air and water. Her desperation makes her easy prey for an evil sea witch, who happens to be her aunt. To walk with Prince Eric and be part of his world, Ariel makes a pact that could mean giving up her lovely voice forever.

As always in a Disney production, it's good to be bad, and Liz McCartney is exceptional at being the many-tentacled meanie who plots to steal Ariel's voice and get revenge on King Triton (the regal Edward Watts). While Ms. McCartney's Ursula did not seem to frighten the young attendees -- and there were many elementary school girls in attendance -- she didn't hold back while plotting against "Poor Unfortunate Souls." While Ursula schemes to bring down the king, it's an island crab that tries to keep an eye on the wandering Ariel. Alan Mingo Jr., a scene-stealer as Donkey in the touring company of "Shrek" that played the Benedum Center in 2011, is a high-strung delight as Sebastian. He earns an ovation for his energetic performance of the Oscar-winning reggae-tinged "Under the Sea," and his fever-pitch distress at Ariel's rebelliousness is good for many a chuckle.

Ariel's loyal friends -- Matt Allen as high-flying fast-talking Scuttle the sea gull and Christian Probst as lovelorn Flounder -- bring comedic charm to their sidekick roles, and Mr. Adams, a star of Broadway's "Priscilla Queen of the Desert," makes the most of what could be a one-note role as the prince who wants to be free of his royal duties. He gets to show off a powerhouse voice in "One Step Closer," a new song for the musical. The Oscar-winning score by Alan Menken and songs from the film with the late Howard Ashman are all here, plus Mr. Menken and Glenn Slater have added a few to enhance the book by Doug Wright.

Kudos must go to the team that created the visual magic. The CLO production, a collaboration with Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey and Kansas City Starlight, has pulled together a group of top-notch artists, including director Glenn Casale, choreographer John MacInnis, scenic designer Kenneth Foy, lighting designer Charlie Morrison and costume designers Amy Clark and Mark Koss. There are no weak links in the cast, but it's the staging that's the real star. If there's a quibble, it's that words are sometimes lost amid movement and spectacle, with individual voices straining to soar above it all.

The pageantry comes in waves, but anyone the least bit familiar with the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and the Disney film won't have much trouble deciphering the tale as it unfolds. The show runs 21/2 hours with intermission, and although there were many children who were probably up past their bedtimes, there didn't seem to be any squirming in the seats of the Benedum on opening night.

At the movies, it's clear from the box-office take of animated PG films such as "Monsters University" and "Despicable Me 2" that family entertainment is at a premium these days. CLO's "The Little Mermaid" fits that bill and more. It recaptures the magic of a beloved film and creates an enchanting theatrical experience to be shared by one and all.

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.

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