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When a stage musical is created from a Disney animated film there are a few basic things to look for. How close was it to being a stage musical in the first place? How will they handle the fact some, if not all the characters are not human? Are the songs in the film appropriate and/or adequate for what one wishes to present on stage? What kind of special effects will be needed to recreate the familiar and beloved elements which made the film work, or should one move to create something new?
In “The Little Mermaid,” now at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts as part of the McCoy Rigby Series, the answers are extremely visual, creative in staging, and sometimes a bit of a let-down musically. Still, it can be a great way to introduce young people to musical theater as an art form, and has a lighthearted silliness which makes for appealing summer entertainment.
The story, based on a tale by Hans Christian Anderson, as reworked into a Disney film, is familiar to just about everyone by now. It follows a mermaid named Ariel, the daughter of King Triton, who yearns to leave the sea world where she feels she doesn’t belong for the world of humans. Fascinated by all she does not understand, she finds focus for her yearnings when she rescues a Prince Eric, thrown overboard from his sailing vessel, and falls in love with him. She cuts a deal with her evil aunt: her voice (though it is her signature) for legs and a chance to enter the human world.
The production uses sets and costumes designed for Broadway by Kenneth Foy, Amy Clark and, aided by Mark Koss, built for a production partnership headed by the Paper Mill Playhouse. Visually stunning, they capture an underwater feel in remarkable ways. The necessary characters “swim” with flowing fabric, Scuttle the sea gull flies and lands with authority, Sabastian has a significantly “crabby look,” and the evil Ursula’s tentacles wiggle and drape with ominous intent. It’s a great visual feast, aided by John MacInnis’ clever choreography and performed by an able ensemble of singers and dancers.
There are two great differences between the film and the stage production however, besides the obvious lack of water. First is the introduction of 14 songs with lyrics written, not by the award-winning Howard Ashman, but by Glenn Slater – whose work is comparatively pedantic. The second is a greater emphasis on the reason for Ariel’s yearning for the human world – that she doesn’t fit in under the sea – and Eric’s yearning to be a sailor rather than a prince, making both characters outsiders looking for someone who will understand. This, a response to those many who have disliked the film’s message that Ariel, as the girl, had to do all the changing in order to fit into Eric’s world.
Still, Alison Woods gives Ariel both an innocent sweetness and a remarkable voice, and makes the show worth watching. Melvin Abston has a lot of fun with Sabastian, the calypso crab. Eric Kunze, as the prince, is mostly asked to look handsome and sing well, and he does this with aplomb. Time Winters fusses charmingly as his tutor, constantly reminding him that he has duties to live up to. Adam Garst makes a sweetly geeky Flounder, and Fred Inkley becomes an imposing Triton.
Still, other than Woods, the standouts of the evening are Jamie Torcellini as the malaprop-dropping, tap dancing seagull Scuttle, Jeff Skowron in a brief but intensely memorable bit as a chef preparing a table-full of seafood dishes, and Tracy Lore as the sea witch Ursula – doing everything but twirling a mustache in her delightedly straightforward villainy. And, of course, there are those songs: “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” and “Kiss the Girl,” among others. These works by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman set the tone for the modern Disney animated film – a legacy which has allowed one after another to be turned into successful stage events.
So, go see “The Little Mermaid.” You’ll enjoy a visual treat, and be joined by bevies of young girls – some even in costume – who will swoon to every move, and know every important line. And this is important, really, as a gateway for a new generation’s enthusiasm for live performance. A little stage magic (and this show has quite a bit) goes a long way in that wooing process.
What: “The Little Mermaid” When: Through June 26, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20-$70 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com
The run of this show has now been extended until October 14
Long ago I knew a woman who spent her youth working as an usher at the theater in Boston where an enormous number of now-famous Broadway musicals conducted their “out of town try-outs.” She used to tell fascinating stories about what these great works looked like when they were newborns, and how they changed during their run at that theater. Indeed, I also grew up with similar tales told by an original chorus member of “My Fair Lady.” Fascinating to consider such a thing in its stage of growing pains.
Now a brand new musical with much to recommend it has surfaced upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse. There, in the Carrie Hamilton Theatre, one may meet “Bend in the Road,” a musical by Benita Scheckel and Michael Upward based upon the classic novel “Anne of Green Gables.” There are a few evidences of the same growing pains referred to above, but by and large this production shows great promise. One may be watching the birth of a hit.
The tale is the classic heart-warmer. An earnest and somewhat headstrong orphan girl lands at the door of two older, unmarried siblings who raise her. She develops a fast and enduring friendship with a neighbor girl, and goes head-to-head with the smartest boy in her one-room schoolhouse. As she grows and learns to be a part of her community, her essential good-heartedness rubs off on those around her – even the crusty, nosy widow-woman nearby who initially works to ruin her.
And all this potentially gooey stuff works in “Bend in the Road” due to a crisp script, taut direction, attractively on-point songs and an impressive lead. Indeed, it is the tinge of mischief and obstinacy in Alison Woods’ Anne which energizes the entire piece. This Anne operates from a sure conviction of her own rightness even when she’s not. You see it in her eyes, and that gives the piece teeth.
The songs also stand out. They are hummable, and some have considerable power. Indeed, I’d put “Kindred Spirits,” the song uniting Anne and her best buddy Diana, right up there with “For Good,” the signature song of the massive hit “Wicked.” It has a similar quality of both topicality and universality, and a similar pop-catchiness. Only one piece, the last before intermission, needs real work. Overly complex, it is an attempted fugue which becomes dissonant and somewhat unintelligible instead. Otherwise, it’s quite a score.
This is enhanced by a fine ensemble, who give heart and intensity to the music, and create details within the town in which Anne grows up. Christopher Callen warms to her work as Marilla Cuthbert, the woman who takes Anne in, though her vocal quality sometimes hints at flatness. Don Margolin provides the necessary warmth as Marilla’s soft-hearted brother. Barbara Niles finds a nice balance of heartache and self-righteousness as the snippy neighbor.
Add to these Melinda Porto’s charming Diana, and Christopher Higgins as the increasingly interesting and youthfully handsome Gilbert, add in a bevy of amusingly snippy school girls and bouncy boys, and you have a cheerful frame for the story.
As for staging, under Scheckel’s direction there is an attractive flow to the thing. Though very low-tech, this episodic tale is set in such a way that it moves from scene to scene with precision and energy, so the story never slows. The tiny stage is full, but not crowded, in part because everyone onstage is there with intentionality: they all have something to do, and someone to be.
Projected scenes using artwork by Anna Scheckel provide an effective essential set, along with quick-moving panels which cover the multitude of necessary locations. Indeed, only a roof-walking scene, worked out behind the projection scrim, is comparatively ineffective. The projector itself is seated too high, so the glow from its bulb, rather than aiming above the audience’s heads, hits some audience members in central seats right in the eyeball. Yet, these are easy to fix.
Past such nitpicky details, “Bend in the Road” works. The story is sweet, but not saccharine. The music proves catchy and interesting. Kevin Lee’s choreography feels organic to the time and characters. There is a cohesive vision at work here, and it shows. This just might be Broadway the old fashioned way: a tuneful show with endearing characters and a touching ending that will send you out smiling into the night. It is neither cutting edge, nor deep social commentary, but satisfying nonetheless. A little nip and tuck, and it may be ready for bigger things.
What: “Bend in the Road” When: Through October 7, 1 p.m. and 7p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays Where: The Carrie Hamilton Theatre upstairs at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 general, $20 children 12 and under Info: (626) 344-8846 or http://www.bendintheroadtickets.eventbrite.com