If you’ve spent any appreciable time underwater, you’re aware that certain colors appear more intense (sometimes markedly so) below the earth’s surface. The so-called Rayleigh effect, wherein light bounces off a bunch of waterborne particles, can become so acute as to “bleach” some hues blindingly white, inky black and everything in between the farther down you go.
It’s hard to — uh — fathom whether the creatives on Broadway San Diego’s current Disney’s The Little Mermaid know or care about this phenomenon. Regardless, they’ve reproduced it to absolute perfection, their stunning undersea landscapes as much a character as any of the personnel.
In fact, the show’s colossal color schemes are nothing less than metaphorical in this positively scrumptious entry, among the very best pieces Broadway SD has ever assembled, Disney or no. Whereas the good 1989 animation lived by its wit, the live show is the wit, its breezy story yielding an absurdly diverse subtext and a climax that’s as happy as it is epiphanal.
The Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, the Kansas City Starlight Theatre and director Glenn Casale and his charges have every right to every accolade on a show set to leave San Diego all too soon.
In her own mind, and amid her obsession with all things landward, teenage central character Ariel is a fish out of water. Eventually and predictably, her renegade spirit will train on the human Prince Eric, unbeknownst to King Triton, her oppressive father — seems he’s a widower at the hands of the fish-skarfing humans, who to no one’s surprise have made a mess of the world above.
Hopelessly in love with Eric, Ariel sets out to make a Faustian deal with sea witch Ursula. She seeks to become human for three days, relinquishing control of her voice to Ursula and newly endowed with legs — but if she can’t elicit Eric’s kiss, she’ll revert to a sea creature and remain Ursula’s slave.
A sobered Triton takes matters a giant altruistic step further; love triumphs, and Ariel and Eric sail away amid marital bliss.
Disney peeps will have no trouble finding similarities between this show and another entry under the same iconic banner. True, Disney’s The Lion King, which has mounted at the Civic Theatre three times, is wildly dissimilar as regards the action and intent — but both stories live and die by their parallels. Sibling versus sibling; family versus family; kingdom versus kingdom; fervent advocacy for the central character’s well-being: They’re all here in exactly the same fashion, as if Disney were capitalizing on the 11 years between Lion King’s 1997 stage opening and Mermaid’s live debut.
And capitalize it did on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, morphed into a libretto by Doug Wright. Triton’s and Ursula’s relationship (she’s his evil sister); guardian Sebastian’s unfailing affection for Ariel; henchmen Flotsam and Jetsam’s eellike furtiveness; Scuttle’s incessant malapropisms; Grimsby’s pesky seasickness; the painstaking differences between Ariel and her six sisters: On and on and on the bits of business accumulate, feeding the episodes into their rightful, magical, devilishly clever whole.
Diana Huey’s Ariel packs a monolithic wallop of a voice (“Part of Your World”) and is memorable amid her unseemly petiteness, while second tenor Eric Kunze dazzles in the normally baritone registers (“Her Voice”).
Triton and Ursula (Steve Blanchard and Jennifer Allen) are at cross-purposes from the get-go (“If Only”), (“Daddy’s Little Angel”), and Jamie Torcellini’s portly gull Scuttle drives home his lovable befuddledness with the lopsided “Positoovity” while Melvin Abston is wonderfully ingratiating as Sebastian (“Under the Sea”).
Dig Dane Stokinger as bombastic Chef Louis, the sleeper character of the evening (“Les Poissons”) — you’ll never look at escargot (which I hate anyway) in the same light again.
Broadway veteran composer Alan Menken (Aladdin, Pocahontas, et al.) is entirely up to the task amid Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater’s virtually seamless lyrics — the tunes magically collaborate with Kenneth Foy’s scene design and Amy Clark and Mark Ross’ eminently seaworthy costumes.
Charlie Morrison’s lights and Ed Chapman’s sound swirl about Colin R. Freeman’s gargantuan music direction and John MacInnis’ and Paul Rubin’s razor sharp choreography (Rubin is listed as the helmer of the flying sequences, which are nearly a show in themselves).
The Little Mermaid was nominated for two Tony Awards in 2008 and won neither, possibly because it opened relatively late in the season that year. But true success is no respecter of acknowledgment (especially in musical theater, wherein “the same page” simply doesn’t exist). Here, it lies in phenomenal bursts of color, song and cunning and in the memories the personnel’s discipline and love will leave behind. Positively outstanding mount.
This review is based on the media-night performance of Sept. 20. The Little Mermaid runs through Sept. 24 at the Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave. downtown. $50-$195. 619-564-3000, broadwaysd.com.