Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Based on Hans Christian Andersen's classic story, The Little Mermaid tells the story of Ariel, a misunderstood mermaid who is fascinated by the world above the sea and, once she saves a handsome man named Eric from drowning, wants even more to be a part of the human world. However, when Ariel's father King Triton learns of her desires, he tells her that because humans killed her mother, contact with them is forbidden. But when Ariel realizes she is in love with Eric she makes a deal with her evil Aunt Ursula, a sea witch who practices black magic, to transform her into a human. The deal comes with strings attached, as Ursula is seeking revenge from being banished from the palace by her brother.
The score includes all of the toe-tapping film songs plus about ten new ones, with lyrics for the new songs by Glenn Slater, some of which are quite good. However, only a couple of the new ones are as infectious as the film's hit songs "Under the Sea" and "Part of Your World," and a few tend to add unnecessary sequences that only end up making the show longer than it needs to be. Doug Wright's book includes some witty lines with jokes that play off the undersea setting, though it is a little confusing in parts, especially the few plot elements that tie up the show's ending, requiring some prior knowledge of the animated film to fill in the gaps.
Director Bobb Copper effectively fills the stage with his large cast and even has his staging pour out into the audience for some of the more elaborate song sequences. He derives good performances from his cast, especially a delightful performance from Tatum Zale as Ursula. Zale's powerful voice excels on Ursula's songs; she seems to relish playing this evil witch and her joy is infectious.
Kayla Dobbs is charming as Ariel and does well in showing the sense of wonder, confusion and awe she feels for the human world. She is also sweet and engaging and full of spunk. Dobbs and Nathan Sheppard, as Prince Eric, form a nice bond with each other and create a realistic couple you root for. Sheppard has a solid stage presence and a strong voice that soars on his songs, including a touching delivery of "Her Voice."
In supporting parts, Clay Rollon as King Triton exhibits a firm strength beneath his love and concern for daughter Ariel, while Ira Hill provides some fun comic moments as Sebastian the crab. Liam Thibeault is an absolute hoot as Scuttle, the know-it-all seagull, and Kylan Chait is simply delightful as Flounder, Ariel's young fish friend. Sam Primack and Devon Policci are devilishly slimy and slithering as Flotsam and Jetsam, Ursula's two moray eel minions, and the talented Mark Muñoz as Chef Louis makes his solo "Les Poissons" a showstopper.
Katie Casey's choreography, which is full of fun, varied movement, and her direction with Cooper ensure that all of the undersea creatures evoke a sense of swimming whenever they are on stage, which adds a nice realistic touch to the production. Musical director Mark Fearey achieves a lush sound from the very large orchestra as well as some superb vocals from his young cast. The quartet "If Only" is quite moving with Dobbs, Sheppard, Rollon and Hill's voices reaching some lovely harmonies. Creative elements are full of shimmering, vibrant colors. Dori Brown's set design features a stellar show curtain and a few small set pieces, including a fun effect for the rowboat for the "Kiss the Girl" song, and Karol Cooper's costumes are a non-stop rainbow of color and creativity. Her original design for Ursula, which features a crazy cotton candy wig by Aeni Domme, is simply superb. Michael Eddy's plush lighting design suggests many moments of realistic underwater imagery. ZFX provides several effective flying sequences that elicit the effect of underwater swimming and flying.
Even with a few drawbacks in the script, which VYT and Cooper can't be faulted for, the stage version of The Little Mermaid provides a fun, family friendly, experience. VYT's production has vibrant colors, sure footed direction and a large, talented cast that result in a crowd-pleasing, magical and engaging production.
The Valley Youth Theatre production of Disney's The Little Mermaid runs through June 26th, 2016, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased by calling 602-252-8497 or at www.vyt.com.
Music by Alan Menken