COLUMBIA – “The little mermaid leaned her white arms on the edge of the vessel and looked towards the east for the first blush of morning—for that first ray of the dawn which was to be her death…”
Here is a taste of the dark ending of the Hans Christian Andersen tale of the Little Mermaid – a tale brought by Disney into the brighter world which we associate with childhood.
In Disney optimistic fashion, the current production of “The Little Mermaid” (directed and choreographed by Mark Minnick) succeeds swimmingly at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia and does so at various depths.
First and foremost, this is the Broadway musical version, in turn, based on the 1989 Disney adaptation of the Danish fairy tale of a mermaid, here named Ariel.
Ariel is a “fish out of water;” unlike most other merfolk, she is well-disposed to mankind, to the point of being in love with the land-dwelling but sea-faring Prince Eric.
As such, it is ideal entertainment for children, especially over the winter holidays from school. Everything lovable from the film is here: actress Abby Middleton brings the cartoon image of Ariel to life, delightful Disney-inspired undersea characters dance and the stage props are realistic and yet cartoon-like – much more extensive than props generally used in Toby’s theatre-in-the-round. The recreation of ships, the rowboat and Ariel’s bubble bath at the palace are all fabulous!
A standout performer is DeCarlo Raspberry as Sebastian the Crab, brimming with personality, notably in the colorful calypso number “Under the Sea.”
Equally wonderful is Middleton’s portrayal of Ariel. She is not only a gifted singer for songs such as “Part of Your World” and “If Only,” but is a fabulous actress, moving into roles such as walking on terra firma for the first time on legs (unsteadily at first) and going through much of the production without being able to speak but using body language and expressions to convey her emotions.
One who may not expect to enjoy the Disney kitsch may be pleasantly surprised and overwhelmed, surrounded by brightly lit plastic swans and over-the-top mermaid outfits. The infectious charm of the production and the charisma of the actors likely is to win over even the hardened curmudgeon. This show also succeeds through the deft mixing of different styles and appeals to various audiences. The orchestra swings smoothly and effortlessly between calypso, French-flavored “Les Poissons,” and the beautifully over-arranged Disney score (including an overture, which is no longer a given in musical productions).
Yet, even more, the show has an unexpected emotional and literary depth; the decision to emphasize some of these elements makes this engaging adult entertainment as well. There are the allusions to “Faust,” as when Ariel is presented with a contract to sign and must “sell her soul” (at first her voice) to a manifestly evil being in an attempt to secure her heart’s desire. Then there is the aptly named Ariel herself, subservient to and yet rebelling against a powerful magical figure who fights against witchcraft and his rival sibling with a shipwreck heavily embedded in the plot – all the stuff of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Then there are musical allusions to Kurt Weill’s “Three Penny Opera,” especially in the song “Poor Unfortunate Souls” intoned as if in a Weimar German cabaret by Lynn Sharp Spears, playing the imposing Ursula.
Also aimed more pointedly at adults than children are puns and near puns of the sea, like “squid pro quo” and King Triton’s admonition to Ariel: “As long as you live under my reef, you follow my rules!”
All in all, Toby’s production of “The Little Mermaid ”running through Jan. 13 is top-flight and highly recommended!
The show brings delight to both children and adults, and at times slips in bits of unexpected Disney wisdom, such as Ariel’s statement: “Perhaps home is not where you are born, but a place you have to discover.”