SANDY — The picture my parents would always show my teenage friends was 2-year-old me, standing in a diaper six inches from an old cathode ray television screen showing Sebastian and Ariel. At that age, I watched the film version The Little Mermaid multiple times a day. I am not alone. In his director’s note, Ryan Simmons recounts play acting as the characters from The Little Mermaid and highlights the massive growth Disney experienced through the success of this show. The Little Mermaid is a nostalgic and wonderful story that is a whale of an undertaking to stage. Between the towering theatrical demands of a staged production of The Little Mermaid and Hale Centre Theatre’s penchant for eye-popping spectacle, my hopes for the production could stretched to fathoms below. I wanted to be amazed and have my 8-year-old son agog. I got exactly that.
To walk into the Young Living Centre Stage was to be enveloped in King Triton’s Atlantica. The walls were filled with oceanic flora, and the central performance space was bedecked with a rippling fifty foot curtain with haze and lights that shimmered like the sea. At rise, Sophia Marie Guerrero, as Ariel, got the core workout of a lifetime as she “swam” while being lifted from the lowest part of the stage floor up through the top of the open theatre space above. I was absorbed in watching Gurrero and her castmates swim, swing, soar and spin in the air for much of the show. The use of automated rigging through the show was worth the price of admission to The Little Mermaid alone. It made high-stakes sequences, such as Ariel’s rescue of Eric and Ursula’s hostile takeover of Triton’s trident, astounding to watch. It also defies logic to understand how such mesmerizing singing can happen while suspended in the air for an entire song.
The entire production staff deserves a standing ovation, principally Simmons and production stage manager Chantel Ficklin, who executed incredibly complex changes to moving sets, lighting and sound effects, precision rigging, marvelous puppets, onstage costume changes and more. To watch this production was to be baptized in the waters of the collaborative nature of theatre making. I have reviewed nearly twenty shows this year for UTBA, and I took the fewest notes during this production because I simply could not take my eyes off of what was happening.
The technical elements were not the production elements that made The Little Mermaid so enjoyable. The cast was stuffed like a crab with talent. Guerrero’s resonant voice was a true siren song that I could have listened to forever. I cannot emphasize enough how impressive it was to watch her sing beautifully with strong characterization as she is floating on a harness thirty feet in the air. The core muscles she would have to develop to perform that way for that long are intense, even if the rigging is incredibly supportive. She managed to maintain intense focus and purpose even as she had to reach out to ensure that the rigging lowered her onto the right set pieces during certain moments of the show.
Performing in the air was not Guerrero’s burden to bear alone. The actresses playing her six incredibly talented sisters were brilliant singers with hilariously distinct characters and attitudes. When the daughters of Triton descend from above on swings their dancing and movements were as harmonious as their voices. I especially was amused by Beatriz Melo’s portrayal of Aquata, who makes no bones about being willing to take Ariel’s solos should she not return. The mersisters were the rare ensemble who all seemed like they truly could have played the leading part.
The evil characters were also incredibly fun to watch. Ursula was played by Mack, who had a presence that would have filled the theatre, even if she had not been surrounded by a massively tentacled costume that was puppeted by eight other actors. Mack was easily the most intimidating person on stage at any time, and it made Ariel’s poor decisions in the script (by Doug Wright) more believable. Mack and Guerrero had a palpable chemistry where it felt like Ariel was truly too terrified to say no to her when presented with a terrible binding contract. I would have loved to see the same kind of stage presence from Triton, but I never felt that Josh Richardson’s Triton was truly driven by the emotions he indicated on stage.
The simple chemistry between the leading romantic characters was heartwarming and endearing. Preston Taylor played Eric with a liberated fervor for the ocean and a gentleness when interacting with his Ariel that would melt the coldest heart. In musicals, singing and dancing can often overshadow other aspects of a performance, leading to shallow levels of acting, but Guerrero’s urgency avoided this pitfall. To have the voiceless Ariel understood by Eric was impactful. Guerrero’s second act with her lost voice showcased her expansive range as a performer. Her expressive movement was on full display, as Ariel tried to communicate and flirt with Eric.
The show was full of spectacular, standing ovation-worthy moments. The one that will linger in my memory was Sebastian’s plea to Ariel to remain “Under the Sea.” Aerialists doing graceful twirls with no supports, other than the rings they hung from, was — again — breathtaking. There were impressive light displays, playful fish puppets, and confetti cannons blasted the audience with magic in a way that only hard-to-vacuum paper can. But what took the song over the top was the undeniable stage charisma of Brian Love, who sizzled as he implored Ariel that “it’s hotter under the water.” Love was another great example of the acting not being lost in singing, dancing or other spectacle, and he was a great addition to a dynamic cast that was as dazzling and diverse as the ocean itself.
My son, who accompanied me to The Little Mermaid, said it was the best show he has ever seen (and he has seen dozens of plays in his short life). The Little Mermaid (with its classic score consisting of music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater) was one of the best performances I have seen in my life, too. I loved it so much that I have already purchased tickets for my wife and next oldest child to go see it. And if Hale Centre Theater wants me to write a second review of the Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday cast, I will go back to Atlantica as many times as they will have me.