By TJ Lukacsina
Run Time: Approx. 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
Sebastian is certainly onto something when he tells Airel that “the human world is a mess. Life under the sea is better than anything they got up there.” Especially if he’s referring to Cockpit in Court’s latest production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, with music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glen Slater. This production is Directed by Jillian Bauersfeld, with Music Direction by Andrew Worthington, and Choreography by Karli Burnham. Originally produced by Disney Theatrical Productions, this adaptation from Disney’s 1989 film has a book by Doug Wright which has had some unfortunate rewrites since the show closed on Broadway in 2009. I’ll be upfront in saying that the majority of my qualms for this production stem from these poor rewrites and cuts that Disney made before allowing it to be licensed to local theatre groups. In general the writing is watered down and presentational on a basic, at times insulting, level and makes you feel as if you’re watching the Wikipedia Summary instead of the show. Thankfully, Jillian Bauersfeld’s handling of the show not only makes it palatable but also an enjoyable experience for all ages.
Briefly, The Little Mermaid is about Ariel, King Triton’s youngest daughter, who wishes to pursue the human Prince Eric in the world above. She bargains with the evil sea witch, Ursula, to trade her tail for legs by giving up her voice. But the bargain is not what it seems, and Ariel needs the help of her colorful friends, Flounder the fish, Scuttle the seagull and Sebastian the crab to restore order under the sea. (www.mtishows.com)
Under the Direction of Jillian Bauersfeld, Music Direction of Andrew Worthington and Stage Management of Robert W. Oppel, this production is highly entertaining and manages to allow the audience to drift from scene to scene without any pull from the undertow. The audience feeds off the energy flowing from the stage and one can’t help but enjoy being slightly distracted from little kids singing along to some of their favorite songs. That’s when you know you have tapped into the Disney magic and are encouraging future theatre lovers.
Walking into the theatre you are treated with a projection of a beach and the sounds of waves and seagulls to help take you away from the pouring rain outside. Creating their magical world, Set Designer Michael Rasinski should be proud of the scene shop’s execution. These beautiful set pieces are large enough to maintain their presence while the cast dances on and around them. Corals in Ariel’s grotto and individual wood planks on Eric’s ship are the kinds of details that help transport you and are much appreciated. But even with the details, a little more attention to the destruction of the grotto would have helped the audience grieve with Ariel instead of wonder why she was so upset that her thingamabobs were moved a few feet away from her whatchamacallits. However, all of these set pieces would go unnoticed if it weren’t for Thomas Gardner’s Lighting Design. Overall, the lighting is aesthetically pleasing and appropriate. The heavy use of haze allowed the lighting to be seen to help fill the full stage space but allowed the lights to become distracting during the scenes on the apron where they obscured the projection heavily. Use of moving lights helped to create the underwater effect and while effective, would occasionally get lost due to similarities in the color pallette . Mr. Gardner certainly has an eye for key moments in songs and certainly knows when and how to highlight them for maximum effect.
Deanna Brill’s Costume Design walked the line between expectation and invention. I applaud the bold choice to tastefully show so much beautiful skin and the design of the mer-tales that were as practical as they were visually delightful. The ensemble were dressed vividly while the classic looks from the movie were still alluded to, from Prince Eric’s classic outfit to even the puffy sleeves on the wedding dress. From the fish, eels and even the birds, the costumes allowed the actor’s characters to come to life. Although the designer is not listed in the program, make-up design was detailed and really helped to establish these characters as otherworldly. My main makeup concern was actually a lack of a certain makeup: the decision to not conceal actor’s tattoos. While appropriate in some shows, I found them to be a minor distraction for this production.
For a show that has a focus on story and is aided occasionally with dance, Karli Burnham’s Choreography helped to showcase the wonderful talent in the cast. With a working knowledge of the costumes, the choreography wasn’t limited to just foot movement but body and arm movements which allowed for a fluid movement from the actors. Some of the large ensemble numbers while portraying water felt repetitive and tedious in their attempt to fill the musical space. However, her work really shines with the small tap ensemble as well as the evolution of dance Eric teaches Ariel in “One Step Closer” was storytelling through dance.
The heavy lifting of Alan Menken’s score is in the capable hands of Andrew Worthington. The cast was well prepared and knowledgeable enough of their parts to make them their own and not rely on mimicking the original cast recordings. All voice parts were balanced and easily heard along with the pit thanks to the constant vigilance by sound designer Brent Tomchik. Following Mr. Worthington’s conducting was a competent orchestra consisting of established musicians in the area: Stephen Deninger, William Zellhofer, Christopher Rose, Stacey Antoine, Joseph Pipkin, William Georg, and Gregory Troy Bell. While proficient and accurate, the orchestra only suffered from a lack of actual brass and additional woodwinds. Even though those parts were covered in the keyboards, I found the patches were inconsistent among themselves and rarely compensates for the timbre from the actual instrument.
All these designers were able to achieve on a level which produced a thorough and consistent vision from Director Jillian Bauersfeld. With the aid of Assistant Director Jake Stuart, the cast is able to portray these fantasy characters with heart, believability and a recognizable humanity. While working under the shadow of a Disney title, it’s difficult to produce a show that allows artistic freedom with a vision while still giving the audience a dose of their expectations from the movie which kicked off the Disney animated renaissance. Ms. Bauersfeld was able to give us a cast worth watching and set up a show that ran smoothly. Small decisions to have the sea characters constantly moving arms or allowing several acting choices that were inconsistent to their characters are minor annoyances and never hurt the overall enjoyment. The true art of directing is assembling the right team to find the right cast and crew and allow everyone to do what they do while pushing them for more. Congrats to Ms. Bauersfeld on your ability to inspire everyone to give their best!
I have always felt that some of the hardest working actors seem to get lost in the ensemble. When asked to play several different characters, help shift set pieces, and often run off stage only to completely change costumes and makeup and run back on stage for two minutes of a three minute song, it’s hard to remember what is next let alone your name. Major kudos to Nicole Arrison, Olivia Aubele, Amy Bell, Lanoree Blake, Katelyn Blomquist, Karli Burnham, Kelsey Feeny, Shani Goloskov, Aaron Hancock, Mark Johnson Jr, Dorian Smith, Ian Smith and Jose Teneza for your energy, talent and being consistently in character. These actors jumped from the sailors steering the ship and winding the rope, to King Triton’s court, to the seagull ensemble, chefs and Ariel’s attendants in the castle and were always able to help establish the mood of the scene.
Featuring Ellen Manuel (Aquata), Elisabeth Johnson (Andrina), Malarie Zeeks (Arista), Kaitlyn Jones (Atina), Emily Caplan (Adella) and Hannah Bartlett (Allana), Ariel’s mer-sisters were a wonderful balance to Ariel’s positive and dreamy attitude. Using different hair styles and different shells while porting vastly different personalities and physical traits, each sister managed to be her own while presenting a unified front in their featured numbers “Daughters of Triton” and “She’s in Love.” Pulling double duty, they are a delight to see on land competing for Eric’s love in the vocal contest that plays up the fantastically poor vocals of these characters.
In supporting yet memorable roles, Brian Jacobs revels in playing Chef Louis during “Les Poissons” while Nicholas Pepersack’s dignified and proper Grimsby was always moving with purpose on stage. Mr. Jacobs clearly enjoys his song and slashes into his character to the breaking point of the cleaver. A fun cameo for sure that was able to get the giggles and laughs from the audience. Grimsby’s conversation with King Triton really gives Mr. Pepersack a moment to have a heartfelt moment and show how proud he is of Prince Eric.
My scene-stealing award goes to Gary Dieter who simply was Scuttle from the moment he flew in to his flawless tap dance in “Positoovity.” Scuttle was over the top and as endearingly annoying as I remember from the movie. It was hard not to smile when he was visible. Sharing the stage with him most of the time and impressively holding his own ground was Adrien Amrhein as Flounder. With sweet dance moves and a solid voice, this kid will secure more roles on stage and we will benefit from seeing him. Dutifully performing a poorly written character, his choices to not emphasize being friend-zoned and play up the best friend were appreciated.
Slithering onto the stage on their matching scooters were Josh Schoff as Flotsam and Jonah Wolf as Jetsam. The choice of scooters to maneuver them around stage was inventive and paid off in execution. Both actors were able to skillfully incorporate them in their character and not rely on them as a crutch. They were perfect henchmen to Holly Gibbs’ Ursula. Having arguably both the best and worst songs in the show, Ms. Gibb was able to make the most of her voice and complemented with acting ability that emanated from all eight limbs.
As ruler of the sea, Mark Lloyd’s King Triton managed to capture the softer side and showcased his mourning for his deceased wife and inability to properly communicate with Ariel. “If Only” is a great song to show that Triton is more than just a fierce ruler who banished his sister to a small part of the ocean but is also a parent who is sometimes unsure how to parent. He relies on Sebastian, played by Derek Cooper, to spy on Ariel and win her trust. With a clever costume and sublime vocals, Mr. Cooper is able to bring Sebastian into our lives with his own lovely interpretation. “Under the Sea” is his time to shine and when out in front singing he earns your attention with powerful falsettos and fantastic facial expressions.
Our leading man, Jim Baxter hits the stage as Prince Eric while taking charge of his ship. Mr. Baxter certainly looks every bit of what you’d expect from the cartoon and captures his love for adventure when on the ship and when courting Ariel in the second act. When beginning “Her Voice” he was oddly out of breath but managed to salvage some and really drive the second half of his number home with gusto and emotion. Not to be out-done by her new fiance, Allison Comotto’s Ariel is exactly what you could want from a Disney princess. Ms. Comotto is able to capture Ariel’s longing and desire to escape all while dealing with difficult family members. Allison really comes to life in Act two when her curiosity and excitement can only be communicated through her facial expressions. The joy Ariel finds in the new world is brilliantly shown during “Beyond My Wildest Dreams” where she sings her inner monologue to us. But however fantastic she is, she is at her prime when singing “Part of Your World.” Congratulations on your fairytale engagement and for inspiring a cast to follow your lead.
Disney’s Little Mermaid is a local theatre production that is able to rely on the community of actors, crew, musicians and artistic staff to bring its own magic to the stage. They should be proud of the work that they have poured into this show. The perfect escape from the summer heat, bring the family to see Cockpit in Court’s production where “it’s better down where it’s wetter.”
Disney’s The Little Mermaid will run through Auguest 5 at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre, CCBC Essex, Robert and Eleanor Romadka College Center, F. Scott Black Theatre. For tickets call the box office at 443-840-ARTS (2787) or purchase them online.
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