Just in time to celebrate the holiday season and experience an artistically-enriching live performance, Olney Theatre Center concludes its critically-acclaimed 76th anniversary season with the area professional premiere of the “Under the Sea” musical, Disney’s The Little Mermaid, which opened on Saturday night with two-time Helen Hayes Award-winner Donna Migliaccio burning up the stage as the evil sea witch Ursula.
Director Mark Waldrop, along with his creative team, including Production Director Dennis A. Blackledge, Musical Director Darius Smith, and Choreographer Tara Jeanne Vallee, have ingeniously revitalized the show from the original Broadway production, which ran for a little less than two years, beginning in 2007. For that stage version, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman added songs to their work in the 1989 movie (Glen Slater helped with lyrics for the stage version), and Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife) wrote the book.
For this latest theatrical adaptation, Waldrop’s creative staging cleverly uses flying sequences to simulate underwater life, in addition to use of heelies incorporated into the effervescent costumes designed by Pei Lee. The actors “swim” by swooping dramatically across an intricately patterned backdrop, tails undulating, and sheer chiffon rippling. It is a lovely effect, generating open-mouthed wonder from the younger members of the audience.
Moreover, with the assistance of Designer Andrea “Dre” Moore, the actors manipulate puppets to recreate the undersea world. And, the rapid-fire color changes of Julie H. Duro’s lighting further enhance and maintain visual interest even as the multi-tasking ensemble add excitement to the vibrant musical numbers with energetic choreography. Along with these technical enhancements, the scenic design by James Fouchard is absolutely stunning, employing multiple scrims, flown in and out to represent various settings, while the underwater world is highlighted by arcs of glistening bubbles, singing mermaids, flying fish, and plenty of rousing dance numbers.
The basic plot is familiar to anyone who knows the original Hans Christian Andersen story or has seen the movie—and undoubtedly there are more of the latter, as the movie is one of the best-loved in the Disney oeuvre, and kicked off the animation renaissance. Ariel (Lara Zinn), a mermaid princess, is unhappy with life under the sea and curious about the human world. After saving human Prince Eric (Joe Chisholm) from a storm at sea, she falls in love and vows to be “Part of Your World.”
Inevitably, many obstacles await. A pact with evil sea witch Ursula (Donna Migliaccio) robs Ariel of her voice and she must earn Eric’s love or be condemned to captivity for life. One change in this production is that Ariel ultimately saves herself. It is nice to see a Disney heroine relying on her own wits to realize her dreams.
As Ariel, the misunderstood mer-princess, Lara Zinn looks exquisite and sings beautifully, winning over the audience with her sweet-natured naiveté, inquisitiveness and impetuous flights of fancy. Her Prince, Eric (Joe Chisholm) is handsome and forthright as he captivates Ariel in “One Step Closer.”
The 21-member cast is strong and well-matched throughout, with gorgeous voices and engaging performances. Scuttle the seagull (Clark Young) blunders and blusters, as sidekick Flounder (Sean McComas) flutters just behind his heroine, Ariel. As Ursula, Donna Migliaccio steals the show nearly every time she appears, complete with a tremendously tentacled costume, some electrified hench-eels and a booming belt voice. Her song, “Poor, Unfortunate Souls,” the first-act closer, is a hilarious, bravura number that is still funny enough not to scare the youngsters in the audience.
Ariel’s father Triton (Nicholas Ward), the King of the Sea, definitely benefits from the reworking of the original book. Ward expresses vulnerability and sadness as he realizes that trying to stand in his daughter’s way will not keep her safe. He voices his regrets in “If Only (Quartet),” joined by Ariel, Eric and Sebastian (Troy Hopper) – each singing of the things they wish could undo. It is a stirring, poignant number, and each of the four voices blend and harmonize wonderfully.
The star-crossed lovers, Ariel and Eric, are reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, but without all the death; but if that sounds serious, no worries—there is plenty of comic relief. Sebastian the crab (Troy Hopper) is amusing as a sycophantic worrywart, but he is even more entertaining when he cuts loose. The joyful “Under the Sea” number features carnival-like adornments, headdresses, and saturated neons that create a chorus of colorful sea creatures. Tara Jeanne Vallee’s choreography, which runs the gamut from zippy numbers to gracefully swooping ballroom dances, nicely complement every note of the impressive nine-membered orchestra.
With a stellar cast, magical new staging, dynamic choreography combined with a universally-appealing story line, Olney Theatre Center’s musical adaptation of Disney’s The Little Mermaid delivers a delightfully rich, spectacular production that the entire family will enjoy and cherish this holiday season and beyond.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission.