SPANISH FORK — Having seen the show on stage three times before, I’m used to spectacle in The Little Mermaid. Nearly every page of Doug Wright‘s script calls for some piece of eye candy, whether it is a shipwreck, costumes for undersea creatures, or magic effects. However, Spanish Fork Community Theater’s production surprised me in the level of dazzle in the show. The staff behind this technically ambitious production had high goals, which resulted in an appealing production of this Disney musical.
Directors Cami Jensen and Ken Jensen‘s vision for this show is faithful to the 1989 film, most noticeably in the scenes taking place in Ursula’s lair. Purists—especially children—will love to see their favorite animated characters in the flesh on stage, acting and singing exactly as fans remember them. My tastes tend towards innovation, though, and I felt that the Jensens’ strongest work was in the scenes that have no parallel in the film, such as the song “One Step Closer,” which was so simply staged that its place as the emotional core of the play was extraordinarily clear.
Staying true to the film had its downside in scenes that were hardest to imitate on stage, most noticeably in “Les Poissons,” a song where Chef Louis (played by Bryan Cardoza) chases Sebastian the crab around the palace kitchen. Instead of Cardoza frantically running after another actor, the directors chose to have Sebastian temporarily played by a small crab puppet. The choice was so confusing that—despite my experience with this play—for a while I wasn’t sure whether the puppet was supposed to be Sebastian or another crab.
Keeping with the director’s vision, Aubri Devashrayee-Woodward’s performance as Ariel was reminiscent of the film. However, the second act gave Devashrayee-Woodward more freedom in the role, and I loved her enthusiasm for joining in the dancing in “Positoovity” or the wide-eyed wonder of “Far Beyond My Wildest Dreams.” Likewise, Duncan Johnson seemed to grow into his role of Prince Eric as the play progressed. His first scene felt like a recitation of his lines, but by the time Eric proposed marriage to Ariel, the relationship between the two felt so organic that the marriage proposal was completely believable.
Krystal Bigler, in the role of Ursula, was a show stealer. In every scene, Krystal Bigler was a stunningly powerful villain, and I enjoyed how she embraced the attitude and power of the character. In every scene she oozed with evil and deception, and I found myself looking forward to her next appearance each time she left the stage. Krystal Bigler also dealt with “Daddy’s Little Angel” much better than I expected see on the Utah stage. The song—an addition to Alan Menken‘s score with lyrics by Glenn Slater—is a mundane one, but Krystal Bigler punched it up with enough personality and force to make it enjoyable.
Another memorable performer was Kristina Bowden as Aquata, one of Ariel’s sisters. Usually the six sisters are almost completely interchangeable, but Bowden distinguished her performance by giving Aquata sass and attitude that the other sisters did not have. I also enjoyed Dan Bigler’s performance as Sebastian, especially as he fretted about Ariel’s choices and worked to keep her out of trouble. The role is poorly developed in the script, but Dan Bigler was able to extract some character from it, such as when Sebastian was pleading with Ariel to obey her father after her grotto had been damaged. Also, Dan Bigler’s part in the “If Only” quartet was touching and showed a deep emotional connection with Ariel. He also handled Howard Ashman‘s complex “Under the Sea” lyrics without garbling a single word.
Ken Jensen‘s technical direction of this production was essential to its success. Several moments astounded me in their technical sophistication, especially Ariel’s rescue of the drowning Prince Eric. This particular effect involved the ship breaking apart, the use of a fly system, moving other set pieces, and bathing the actors in beautiful hues of blue light (from lighting designer Zac Lambson) that closely mimicked an underwater effect. The complexity of this sequence—executed perfectly in the performance I saw—exceeded anything I have ever seen in amateur theatre.
Kristal Thompson‘s costume designs were stellar, especially the undersea costumes. These incorporated sparkles, LED lights, and bright colors to create a fantastical, eye-catching world. Adding to the pizzazz of the ocean creatures Chelsea Kennedy‘s hair designs, which included a memorable blue and yellow mohawk for Flounder and bright hair colors to match the fin colors of Ariel’s sisters. The costumes for the humans, predominantly functional and colored in earth tones, provided a great contrast to the undersea world, making it clear that the two realms differ.
Choreographing for an amateur cast is difficult because if the dancing is too simple, then the song is boring to watch. Yet, if the dancing is too complex, then the execution is often sloppy. Leishman hit the right balance between complexity and manageability for “She’s in Love” and “Positoovity,” but “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” were too low energy and basic to meet those songs’ full potential. None of Leishman’s work was bad per se, but the superb work from the other visual artists made me less forgiving of anything short of excellence in this production. On the other hand, I did enjoy how the cast always remembered when they were underwater and changed their mannerisms and movements to match the setting.
Still, the flaws in this production of The Little Mermaid are relatively minor. Even though I could find things I didn’t like in the play, none of them could detract from a generally fun show. Spanish Fork Community Theater’s The Little Mermaid is far superior to most amateur musical productions, and even if the ticket prices were doubled, the show would still be worth the price of admission.