Imagination Stage, in collaboration with The Washington Ballet, presents the world premiere of The Little Mermaid. This creative partnership follows the highly acclaimed award-winning production The Lion, The Witch, & the Wardrobe (2012), and like the former, fuses music, theatre, dance, and puppetry to create a thrilling and expressive performance.
Adapted from Hans Christian Anderson’s classic, with book and lyrics by Janet Stanford and music by Matthew Pierce, this poignant piece is recommended for children ages 5+. Kathryn Chase Bryer directs this production alongside musical director and consultant George Fulginiti-Shakar.
As the stage needs to be spacious and clear for the dancers, Scenic Designer Milagros Ponce de Leon relies heavily on the help of Lighting Designer Jason Arnold, and Sound Designer Christopher Baine, and together they create a simple but effective stage design. Curved structures hang from the ceiling, suggesting the wavy sea surface, while slow, dappled waves of light drift across a billowy blue curtain backdrop to suggest underwater sunlight.
Puppetry is also a big part of the scenery and adds a lot of color and movement, my favorite being a massive shark that needs to be manipulated by two people!
These effects, partnered with Matthew Pierce’s ethereal compositions, make for a peaceful, almost drowsy atmosphere– until it isn’t. As lightning crackles and pops and thunderous roars rocket through the space, the orchestrations quicken their pace to match the changing tone. The technical elements work fantastically together, and lay the perfect foundation for our actors and dancers.
Septime Webre and David Palmer’s choreography is creative from the get-go, as an ensemble of dancers dressed in shimmery blue leotards hold the Little Mermaid (Giselle MacDonald) aloft while she “swims” through the ocean. The effect is striking, and Costume Designer Helen Q. Huang succeeds in making the costumes both functional (airy, flexible fabric is needed for the dancers) and beautiful. The Little Mermaid faces challenges as she enters adulthood; jealous of the fact that she is their father’s favorite (Todd Scofield has a commanding, powerful presence as Mer-father), her sisters tease the Little Mermaid and scoff at her interest in the human world.
Emly Zickler is great as the sharp-tongued, bossy Coral, and Afua Busia does a fine job as Amber, the cautious middle sister who is too timid to challenge her. When the Little Mermaid’s insatiable curiosity meets a dire opportunity, a chain-of-events begins to unravel, and leaves everyone’s lives forever changed.
Each character is partnered with a dancer in their likeness, who dances alongside them to amplify the emotions and tone in ways that lyrics and dialogue cannot. Giselle MacDonald is exquisite as the Little Mermaid’s dancer, and it is her often painful, always poised performance that will stay with you long after you leave. Tiziano DÁffuso and his dance double Christopher Collins make a great duo as Prince Edvard– while Edvard obsesses over the mysterious lady who rescued him from a shipwreck, his dancer beautifully echoes his inner turmoil.
This version of The Little Mermaid is not as widely-known as the original– you won’t find any sassy crabs or silly seagulls here. While Hans Christian Anderson’s version was much more affecting (and therefore perfect for ballet), some lighter scenes ad characters were added into this production to help balance out the drama. I especially enjoyed a lively and fun “dance-off” scene aboard a grand ship. Dancers Chris Collins, A. Logan Hillman, and Leonardo Victorino kept the young audience’s rapt attention with their impressive acrobatics.
In some ways, the added levity was successful (Emily Kester got a lot of laughs as the adorably awkward Princess Riborg, and Jennie Lutz was great as the vain social climber Froken Wulff), while at other times the fluffy scenes seemed a bit disjointed and superfluous (was a dance involving passing an apple around other over and over really necessary?) However, this wasn’t a big enough of an issue to detract from the overall experience.
The actors have impressive vocals as well, especially Jennie Lutz as the intimidating Enchantress. With the addition of dance and puppetry, the arts are really put on display here.
Imagination Stage and The Washington Ballet’s collaboration The Little Mermaid is a standout pick this season. The adults will most definitely enjoy this production as much (if not more so!) than their children.
Running Time: 90 minutes, including one 15-minutue intermission.