Memorial Day Weekend usually means a trip to the shore, but Steel River Playhouse brought the ocean to Pottstown, with its glorious rendition of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. True, the show takes plays underwater (something more easily achieved in the original animated film), but that couldn’t deter a triumphant director/design team.
Artistic Director Leena Devlin’s first coup was hiring Dann Dunn, one of the area’s busiest director/choreographers. (I thoroughly enjoyed his productions of Side Show and West Side Story earlier this season.) Dunn’s staging was virtually flawless and the choreography amusingly took into the account that nearly all the characters are fish. Steel River also runs a training program, and the huge cast featured many students and children, all of whom were skillfully choreographed. Dance highlights included “Under the Sea” and “One Step Closer.”
The wondrous settings by Josh Gallagher managed to illustrate the many locales, under and above the sea, despite the limitations of the small black box stage. A rock-faced unit featured sliding panels that transformed with each scene, while seaweed and various other set pieces flew in. A stone-like false proscenium created the perfect picture frame, and there was even a clever bubble mobile for the undersea scenes.
Just as stunning were the costumes of Jenn Povish, whose weightless, colorful fabrics floated on the imaginary water as they delineated many cartooned sea creatures such as manta rays, flounders, eels, and dragonflies. Using the designs from the original film as inspiration, Povish, Gallagher and Dunn created a mythical world that dazzled with its bright colors. Jerry Jonas’ moody lighting carefully delineated the undersea and shoreline scenes, but sometime failed to clearly light the actors. The unusual wig and makeup designs by Sam Rhame and Chis Longeway completed the fantasy.
The musical direction by Melissa McVaugh and Barb Newberry of the acclaimed Alan Menken score was first-rate, as was the singing and acting of the large company. Amanda Morrell as Ariel created the longing to explore life that has enraptured generations of pre-teen girls since the film’s release in 1989. Her rendition of “Part of Your World” seized the reviewer’s affection from the start. Sebastian Antonio stopped the show with a witty cameo as a sadistic chef, while Tyreese Kadle as the Caribbean crab brought enormous enjoyment to “Kiss the Girl” (though his thick accent obscured some of Howard Ashman’s charming lyrics.) Brian Rock as King Triton, and Tom Pitt as the tutor Grimsby, demonstrated excellent character acting skills and wonderful singing voices. Best of all was Alicia Huppman as the enchanting but evil Ursula. Wearing an eight-legged costume that brought down the house on her first entrance, she slithered her way through every deliciously wicked lyric and dance.
The family audience adored every second. But what about serious theatergoers? Most will vote for the DVD of the film, as Doug Wright’s book merely lengthens the evening, while the new songs (music by Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater), such as “Her Voice” for the Prince and “Positoovity” for the seagulls, can’t hold an undersea candle to the film’s originals.
The Little Mermaid should prove popular with amateur groups. It offers a large number of memorable smaller roles, not to mention the opportunity to see, hear, and (after the performance), meet the beloved characters. Disney has successfully created live action versions of classic animated films, such as Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella. They seem to be onto something wonderful.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with an intermission.