KAYSVILLE — The lobby of the Hopebox Theatre is lined with plaques for recipients of the company’s Wall of Hope. A few dozen names are commemorated, each tied to a show as cancer patients and survivors who benefited from Hopebox’s unique mission: to assist individuals fighting cancer in Utah with proceeds from play performances. In that space, I was warmly greeted at the box office, moved to a better seat by a helpful usher who noticed my obstructed view, and the play began and ended with a nod to the beneficiary of the show I saw on Saturday, September 24, 2023, Jules Snar. The play was Disney’s: The Little Mermaid, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater.
Garrett Stephenson immediately stood out for his gravity on stage as Prince Eric. Each time he was on stage, he seemed to elevate the entire cast. In fact, during the “Fathoms Below” number, I had mistaken another character briefly for playing Eric, and thought, “Ooh, they should have cast that guy who has so much presence.” As it turned out, “that guy” was Stephenson. His portrayal of Eric grasped the gnawing that Eric has for the life he wants, despite the character’s cushy life. It was refreshing to see a strong actor in such an important role.
Kali Garrett’s portrayal of Ariel read as a believably hopeless romantic ingénue from her first swim on stage. She took conveyed wonder at each of the human things she interacted with as if they were new the first time, and when called upon was filled with the teenage angst that drives Ariel’s reckless decision making. Her crescendos in “Part of Your World” and “Beyond My Wildest Dreams” were pitch perfect and demonstrated her strong vocal range. That dynamic was often missing from the early verses and chorus of songs, but when a full head of steam was building, Garrett filled the small space with tone that sparkled like the sea. As I mentioned in my last review of The Little Mermaid at Hale Center Theatre, the ultimate challenge with Ariel is being expressive enough to carry a largely unvoiced second act. Garrett’s charisma allowed her to communicate well without words the wants and intentions of the unvoiced Ariel.
Garrett’s struggle to find her voice in the songs was not unique. The sound mixing of music operator Maisee Madrigal and sound operator Mark Pizolli seemed out of sync at times, with the music overwhelming the actors. Given the small space, the ensemble and actors needed to sing up, the music needed to come down, or perhaps both.
The ensemble, overall, was strong and richly diverse. I loved seeing an actress in a wheelchair bopping along to “Under the Sea” as she sung and spun her heart out. Joel Fernandini as Chef Louis was a comedic high point. Louis is intended to be uncomfortably overzealous, and Fernandini was a riot to watch. At one point, he was so into pursuing Sebastian, that his wig came off, and Fernandini ad libbed something about losing his hair, but it absolutely stuck because of his commitment to being unhinged. The mersisters were impressively harmonious and did not have trouble in singing loud enough, as some cast members had. Ellie Stephenson’s Aquatta was particularly vivid with consistent sneers thrown at Ariel and a well defined character. There was one moment where she seemed to miss the target, as she flippantly disregarded the death of her mother, but other than that, she and the mersisters were a bubbly and melodic sextet.
I loved the functionality of the set in the intimate theatre space. A two-panel ship that cast members could take apart and carry on and off stage was a strong and versatile choice by set designer and founder Jan Williams. I appreciated the use of hanging silks by Stephenson and Garrett during the scene where Eric and his crew are lost in a storm. It created just enough spectacle to tickle imagination without being overwhelming. The set also had a beautiful mural of the tide washing up on a beach, which was the kind of attention to detail that enhances a show with the audience and actors so close.
Director Megan Smith highlights in her director’s note something I loved about this performance: The beauty of The Little Mermaid and fairy tales is that they, “offer us an escape into worlds of magic and beauty and love, while imparting truth.” Ariel hopes for things she has no reason to hope for and takes courageous risks in the pursuit of that hope. This show was full of little moments where leads and ensemble members beamed with magic and beauty and love. I particularly loved the scene where Eric rattles off a list of potential names for Ariel, and he guessed, “Jules,” who was the show’s Wall of Hope recipient. From the jubilant bop of “Under the Sea” to the chaotic Sebastian chase with the many chefs who brought so many little moments to life, Hopebox’s The Little Mermaid was a joy to watch. “Up on the shore, we work all day,” and it is nice to know that anyone can go where “it’s hotter under the water” at Hopebox Theatre.