News Column

Giving 'Mermaid' grander scales

July 19, 2013

YellowBrix

July 19--Starlight Theatre has joined forces with two other estimable regional theater companies to bring audiences a revamped version of "Disney's The Little Mermaid," a colorful stage musical based on Disney's 1989 animated film.

Critics weren't particularly kind to the 2008 Broadway version, which had a successful -- though not spectacular -- run. But scribes have been remarkably generous to the new "Mermaid," which opens Tuesday at Starlight following runs at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey and the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.

"If the revisions give 'Mermaid' a bit more bite, its essential, modest assets remain the same, and (director Glenn) Casale's spirited, affectionate guidance serves them well," wrote Elysa Gardner in USA Today. A writer for the North Jersey Media Group described the production as having "enough Day-Glo color to spray-paint a subway, and enough fly-wires for three productions of 'Peter Pan.'"

The production features songs from the film by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, as well as songs composed for the stage version by Menken and Glenn Slater. Playwright Doug Wright ("I Am My Own Wife") wrote the book.

Denton Yockey, Starlight's president and executive producer, said Casale's interpretation differs from the Broadway production in many ways, not the least of which is his decision to hoist actors into the air. On Broadway, sea creatures did their "swimming" on roller skates; in this show they fly. That comes as no surprise because Casale, the artistic director of California Musical Theatre in Sacramento, has directed multiple versions of "Peter Pan" with Cathy Rigby.

Yockey said this production came about because he, like most major presenters, stays in regular contact with Disney about touring shows. People in the touring division knew he was interested in booking a new "Mermaid" tour if Disney put one out. Eventually he got the word that Disney wasn't interested. So if Starlight wanted to build a new production, it was available.

"They said, 'You've been so patient with us, let's see if we can get you on the list of producers who can produce the show,'" Yockey said. "I said 'Great.' But this is big, and my head started to explode with all the possibilities of how much money would go into a brand-new physical production with this. At the same time I learned that Paper Mill had a relationship with Disney. So I just picked up the phone and called Mark Hoebee (Paper Mill's producing artistic director), and Mark and I engaged in a dialogue about doing a co-production together."

They worked out an agreement and then learned that the Pittsburgh company was interested as well. Ultimately five regional theaters pooled resources for a new physical production. In addition to the three where the "Mermaid" is playing this summer, Dallas Summer Musicals and Theatre Under the Stars in Houston helped fund the new show. The consortium will own the physical production -- sets, props and some costumes -- which can be rented to other theater companies.

Yockey said the newly constructed show costs about $800,000. Starlight's share of the expense, about $160,000, could be recouped in five years, Yockey estimated.

"It's a big show, and we're happy to be part of it," he said. "It takes a village."

But that's all hammers and nails and dollars and cents. Yockey, who said he watched a rehearsal in New York before the Paper Mill opening, is high on the show and Casale's direction.

"What I know is that the story is so beautifully told, so clear, and with great emotional depth," he said. "Glenn, as many times as he took on 'Peter Pan,' never treated it like, 'OK, this is No. 14.' He always started fresh."

Yockey said "Mermaid" is projected to be Starlight's most popular show of the season. Most of the other titles have a PG-13 sensibility, more or less, but "Mermaid" plays directly to a family audience. Last week the theater was selling 300 to 500 tickets a day.

"It is going to be our biggest seller of the summer," he said. "We knew that going into it. It is selling tickets like hotcakes."

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