One thing you can count on with any Disney property is that the company’s massive corporate marketing machine will be prepared to squeeze every possible dollar of profit—merchandising and licensing, theme park rides, video games and television spin-offs and, yes, theatrical adaptations.
When it comes to those Broadway shows, some have been massive hits like “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Others, “Mary Poppins,” “Newsies” and “Aladdin” have been profitable and popular. And then there was “Tarzan,” a big flop for Disney’s Broadway money machine.
“The Little Mermaid,” the 1989 feature that marked a decade-long renaissance for Disney animation, only made it to Broadway for 685 performances in 2008 and closing in 2009, a relatively short run. The 5th Avenue Theatre production has been touring the country recently and pulled into the Broward Center last week for a two-week run.
Despite a catalog of tuneful, award-winning songs by composer Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, “The Little Mermaid” unfortunately feels more like a theme-park attraction than a Broadway show.
Make no mistakes, the production is not cheap, like so many non-Equity productions that been padding the Broadway series at local performing arts centers in recent years.
Kenneth Foy’s set design is creative, evoking the waves on the surface and the colorful world fathoms below. Amy Clark and Mark Koss’s costumes are clever and clever and faithful to the vision of the groundbreaking film. There are even a few Julie Taymor/”Lion King”-style puppets and, through the magic of traditional scrims and wires, the characters at various times convincingly appear to swim across the stage.
But despite the big bag of tricks the creative team leverages, the usual Disney magic is missing. The cast is capable and talented: Diana Huey (Ariel) snagged a coveted Helen Hayes Award for her leading role in “Miss Saigon” in Washington, D.C., Melvin Abston (Sebastian) toured in “The Lion King” and Jennifer Allen (Ursula) has a long list of Broadway credits.
The highlight was the spirited 14-piece orchestra under the direction of Colin R. Freeman, who led the cast in all the familiar songs, including “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea,” “Kiss the Girl,” and an especially delicious “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” performed by Allen.
It’s hard to believe that “The Little Mermaid” can’t be as convincing on stage as “Beauty and the Beast,” with its singing and dancing candelabras, tea cups and feather dusters. Maybe director Glenn Casale could revisit the production and infuse some chemistry into the performances.
While regular theatergoers might be disappointed with the experience, the many children and families in the Au-Rene Theater audience probably didn’t notice. And tickets to “The Little Mermaid” are certainly cheaper than a trip to Orlando.
Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” is being performed at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale through Sunday, March 5. Tickets start at $35 at BrowardCenter.org.