Review: ‘The Little Mermaid’ at Toby’s Dinner Theatre

The Little Mermaid is bringing big waves of happy little faces to Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Whether they come adorned in magical gowns with sparkling tiaras or sneakers that light up with every step, these new play-goers take long strides and hold tight to Mommy’s hand as they settle down at ringside tables, barely able to contain the thrill of it all.

Abby Middleton as Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Photo by Jeri Tidwell Photography.

Most of them do not have much history yet, but all seem to arrive with a past experience of the original Disney animated classic. Perhaps their parents once shared their own memories of seeing the movie back when it debuted in 1989.

This stage adaptation opened on Broadway in 2008 but did not grab audiences with the same ferocity as Disney’s The Lion King, for instance. Perhaps it just didn’t fit well under one of those grand old proscenium arches. Toby’s sunken central stage provides the perfect three-dimensional wiggle-room for the leaps of a child’s imagination.

Director Mark Minnick has all hands on deck helping him haul up the old Hans Christian Andersen fish tale with a wide net of savvy theatrical tricks. Scenery and Lighting Designer David A Hopkins places the undersea action in a changing aquarium of rock beds, sprigs of seaweed and sunken debris only Scuttle the Seagull could possibly know the name for.

The colorful costumes by A.T. Jones & Sons are fanciful and often funny but also tend to be clunky. The mermaids with their long tails swish around turns like errant Pasadena parade floats — so watch yourself if you get a stage-side seat.

Whoever came up with the wonderful idea for those luminous floating jellyfish, on the other hand, deserves a hefty Christmas bonus this year.

Once again director Minnick assembles a winning cast of talented singers and actors who collectively raise the bar on the whole notion of children’s theater.

Abby Middleton owns the role of Ariel as soon as she opens her mouth to sing. Her voice is so pure and musical as she runs through all the forbidden fruits of “The World Above” that it seems a double shame when she trades it away for a pair of human legs in a pact with the scheming sea witch, Ursula.

Lynn Sharp Spears is all but lost inside the folds of her Ursula costume — but still proves agile enough to reach moments of both comedy and pathos. Her delightfully devious “Poor Unfortunate Souls” drips with self-pity and resentment, although the less familiar lyrics of her “Daddy’s Little Angel” number could use some clearer enunciation and projection.

Winning Ariel’s heart and ultimately ours as well is Justin Calhoun as Prince Eric.

Stealing this show is no small feat since it comes packed like a tin of sardines with Toby’s scene-stealing all-stars.

Jeffrey Shankle gets the all-out comical role of Scuttle, the bird-brained pundit of all things landlubberly. His vocal and dancing talents get the most out of one of the score’s better new songs, “Positoovity,” a good try by recruited lyricist Glenn Slater to give the show its own scaled-down “Hakuna Matata”-like philosophy.

The amazing David Bosley-Reynolds returns for another showcase role, this time as Chef Louis whose culinary skills mask a diabolical zest for eviscerating little fishies. Award-winning singer Russell Sunday commands another stellar role as fatherly tyrant King Triton. And David James manages to make even that old tiresome stick-in-the-mud Grimsby into a figure of great fun.

Abby Middleton and DeCarlo Raspberry in Disney’s The Little Mermaid at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Photo by Jeri Tidwell Photography.

But most of the fun in this show is cornered by DeCarlo Raspberry as that jovial Caribbean singing crab, Sebastian. His standout numbers from the film, “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl,” both (perish the thought) land on grateful ears here thanks to Raspberry’s cheerful joie de vivre.

The female supporting roles all appear more than shipshape with their bare midriffs and seashell brassieres. Ariel’s singing sisters are most harmoniously played by the accomplished Elizabeth Rayca, Maggie Dransfield, Rachel Kemp, MaryKate Brouillet, Coby Kay Callahan, and Louise Tringali.

Good male support comes from Jacob Hale as Flounder, Taylor Witt as Flotsam and Joey Ellinghaus as Jetsam. The latter two provide a visual bonus with their performances throughout on “merskates.”

The live orchestra under the direction of Ross Scott Rawlings helps make all the singers sound their best and positively buoys all of Choreographer Mark Minnick’s dancing denizens of the deep.

Young audiences and old will both enjoy this live-stage retelling of a Disney classic. All “fish out of water” cracks aside: Toby’s has quite the entertaining seafood platter waiting for you here…and you won’t have to shell out a whole lot of clams.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 15 minutes, with one 25-minute intermission.

Disney’s The Little Mermaid plays through January 13, 2019 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 596-6161, (410) 730-8311 or 800-88TOBYS, or purchase them online. 

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John Harding
Born and raised in Los Angeles, John Harding is an award-winning writer and editor. His features and reviews on film and theater have been published in the Washington Post and numerous other newspapers and magazines. Since 1982 he has covered D.C. and Maryland theater for Patuxent Publishing, and was arts editor for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He hosted a long-running cable-TV cultural affairs program and served numerous terms as chair of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Also known for his fiction as John W. Harding, his newest novel is “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 'Hollywood Games.'” It grew out of his lifelong love of early Hollywood lore. It is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other outlets.

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