Updated: Sep 9
A Fish Out of Water Lands a Big One!
As a dad with two grown daughters now, I can appreciate a Disney princess like nobody’s business. It’s sacred territory in many households, and meeting a princess for a little girl is a life-changing experience.
Admittedly, I’ve always liked the curiosity and rebelliousness of Ariel, too, who we first met in the animated 1989 Disney film, based on the Danish fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. God knows I’ve seen it enough times! She is extremely relatable, as evidenced by the scores of little girls in the audience recently, squealing with glee and generally acting like Ariel was there just for them.
For the record, we are in LA at the renowned Cupcake Theater at the Hollywood Majestic. This theater has a long reputation of making Broadway stars, and “The Little Mermaid” of which we speak has been playing to sell-out crowds for weeks already. I sincerely hope that your childhood wasn’t so sheltered that you need a plot synopsis of “The Little Mermaid,” but just in case you were raised under a rock (or a reef), here's a quick synopsis: Set under and above the high seas, this classic Disney adventure tells the story of Ariel, King Triton’s youngest daughter (and his biggest headache) and her wish to become human and pursue the human Prince Eric in the world above, bargaining with the evil sea witch, Ursula, to trade her tail for legs. But the bargain is not what it seems. If she fails to find love’s first kiss, her soul pays the price. "Poor child. Poor, sweet child."
Featuring a host of standout characters, our protagonist, Ariel, is charmingly played by Kelly Hancock ("Beauty & The Beast"). Displaying bright smiles and wounded yearning, Ms. Hancock possesses a pristine beauty and a plangent, shimmering soprano that effortlessly slides into a caramel-creamy belt as the drama demands. Her winning presence, spirited curiosity and natural youthful impetuosity has just the right amount of spunk to believe that Ariel would actively pursue a life above the foam.
The little finned teenager is passionately curious about all things having to do with the wonderful world up above, and goes out of her way to collect human things that she keeps in her secret grotto. It is this curiosity that eventually leads her to cross paths with the handsome Prince Eric (exuberantly performed by a suave, chivalrous Max DeLoach, who you may have seen earlier this year at the Cupcake as Emmett in “Legally Blonde”), who completely captures her heart.
With its catchy songs, its plucky, independent-minded heroine, its irresistibly campy villainess and a happy ending far more uplifting than the ethereal original, “The Little Mermaid” is a hauntingly beautiful love story for the ages. Featuring music by eight-time Academy Award winner, Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, and a compelling book by Doug Wright, this fishy fable will enrapture you with its alluring songs, including “Fathoms Below,” “One Step Closer” and “Beyond My Wildest Dreams.”
More about that in a moment. But first, some history. To say the 1989 animated movie was a hit is a bit like saying Jacques Cousteau did a few dives here and there. But when it came to the 2007 live stage version, the obvious problem was how to stage the numerous sections of the film that take place underwater, being as its heroine was a mermaid, her dad was Triton, king of the wet stuff, and that Ariel's best pals were a flounder and that chatty crustacean.
Short of flooding the joint with water and attaching scuba gear to everyone, a big metaphor was needed. And there was another complication. Half of the show takes place on land — Ariel is fond of her new shanks and the princely dude whom she spies from her little rock. So, it can't just be all underwater. The show needed both.
On Broadway, the big idea back then was Heelys (footwear with wheels), allowing the actors to, in theory, make like the fishies. In theory. In practice, it was like watching people skating around, arms akimbo, not making much like the fish at all but just looking very self-conscious and weird. The show retained its fine Menken-Ashman score, adding some new Ashman songs with lyrics by Glenn Slater, and was not without charm, but most people thought it was too kitschy, failed to commit to the truth of Ariel's beloved seascape and thus was not an ideal solution.
Enter Glenn Casale, who, in 2012 revised the book and production completely, helping to tell the story more clearly and giving the musical more impact on stage, a more elevated tone and a more realistic look. Glenn Casale and his revisions to the original Broadway adaptation are now the basis for all major licensed productions worldwide.
And for this production, it’s a gorgeous color palette of pastel blues, oranges and pinks. Translucent, billowing waves on a projected backscreen, colorful deep-sea creatures swirling in the ocean’s abyss, conveying not just one undersea world but a host of neighborhoods within that world. Costumes that manage to be both lush and witty — exaggerated, charmeuse costumes, skin-tight, all shiny as fish scales, giving the feeling of a watery kingdom ruled by ancient gods.
Sebastian the Crab, the easily befuddled, creole-scolding sidekick to Ariel, is front and center most of the time in a flaming red outfit, sporting the trademark Caribbean accent, played by the vivacious Amber Monét ("Dream Girls"); Dylan Thomas (Universal Japan: "A White Christmas Carol") is an authoritative King Triton with a resonant bass-baritone, ruling the deep and also every scene he’s in. And of course, there’s Scuttle, played by Mads Durbin ("SpongeBob SquarePants"), the malapropism-prone sea gull, in a full white feather-like costume with black and orange leggings. Ms. Durbin’s dim-witted sea scholar brings forth plenty of buffoonery and some serious tap-dancing chops in the second act as she hones in on the character's eccentric personality (“Positoovity”).
Alexandra Ackerman (Off-Brdwy: "It's Just Sex") is an incredible Ursula; Christopher Robert Smith (Natl. Tour: "Dirty Dancing") brings down the house with creative staging as Chef Louis and his fish-hate tune “Les Poissons. Mr. Smith also plays a vibrant and resonant pilot. Flotsam (Trae Adair; "Beauty & The Beast") and Jetsam (Chloe Haven; Ntl. Tour: Celtic Angels Christmas") stand out as Ursula’s Sly, manipulative, moray-eel henchmen, with magic eyes who speak in unison and finish each other’s sentences in a kind of a Bad Idea Bears way. And the winsome little guppy Flounder is rambunctiosly portrayed by Mandie Hittleman (Off-Brdwy: "Shame of Thrones"), but this time with a thang for Ariel. Huh?
David Callendar plays an over the top, prim and proper Grimsby ("It's Only a Play"), valet to Eric; Ariel’s eye-catching sisters include Africa Turner ("The Wiz") as Allana, Amaya J (Mpire Entertainment - "Wired") as Adela, Lenessa Age ("Into The Woods") as Andrina, Roni Paige ("A Little Night Music") as Aquata, Amy Melendez ("Arena: A House Music-al!") as Atina and Tara Cox (Tour: "Theatre for Youth") as Arista. The supporting ensemble — Alexander Reeves ("Grease"), Kyle Stocker ("Othello"), Jullian Hennech ("Little Shop of Horrors") and Justin James ("Something Rotten") — as well as the tech crew from Cupcake Theater, not to mention their venerable four-piece band, deserves much applause for their faultless spectacle of emotion, fascination and enchantment.
“Her Voice,” another chill inducer, gives Mr. DeLoach’s dreamboat prince a yearning anthem to match Ariel’s “Part of Your World,” his rich voice conveying a gentle humanity to the love-starved blueblood. Closing the first act, Ms. Ackerman’s Ursula, accompanied by Flotsam and Jetsam, revels in her evil delight of wasted souls in “Poor, Unfortunate Souls,” played in a style that combines Broadway theater with burlesque. Somewhat different from the film Ursula (who is sort of a cross between Mae West, Divine and Bea Arthur), Ms. Ackerman creates the most fully formed character, deadpanning her cutting remarks with casual aplomb, gleeful malice and venomous relish (“Daddy’s Little Angel”).
With that kind of talent, it’s no surprise the show’s a hit. What’s not surprising is how overwhelmingly delightful the numbers are. It’s something we’ve come to expect from Disney. “If Only” may be the standout among the newer songs as Ariel, Eric, Sebastian and Triton all lament their inability to share their true feelings, in beautiful four-part harmony. But the joyous pull-out-all-the-stops calypso flavored frolic “Under the Sea” and the gloriously romantic “Kiss the Girl” are the delicious songs you came for, bedazzled with interesting choreography and complete ensemble, and it’s all you can do not to get up and sing with them. Hey – “We got no troubles…Life is da bubbles Under The Sea!”
DISNEY’S THE LITTLE MERMAID; Music by Alan Menken; Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater; Book by Doug Wright (based on the Hans Christian Andersen story and the Disney film); Written & Directed by John Musker & Ron Clements; Produced by Howard Ashman & John Musker; Originally Produced by Disney Theatrical Productions; Musically Directed by Dylan Price; Scenic & Projection Design by Brayden Hade; Lighting by James G. Smith; Sound by Marcos Rodriguez; Produced by Michael Pettenato; Originally Produced by Howard Ashman & John Musker; Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.
WITH: Kelly Hancock, Max DeLoach, David Callendar, Mandie Hittleman, Mads Durbin, Dylan Thomas, Amber Monét, Trae Adair, Chloe Haven, Alexandra Ackerman, Christopher Robert Smith, Africa Turner, Amaya J, Roni Paige, Amy Melendez, Tara Cox, Alexander Reeves, Kyle Stocker, Jullian Hennech and Justin James.
BAND: Dylan Price – Piano; Anthony Zediker – Piano (alternate); Greg Niemi – Drums; Sean Knapp – Bass.
Presented by Cupcake Theater at The Hollywood Majestic; Now Extende through September 18th at 671 N. Berendo St, Los Angeles, CA 90004. Playing Fridays: 8PM, Saturdays: 2PM & 7PM, Sundays: 2PM; Price: $49- $79; Duration: Approx. 2 hours 25 minutes including a 15-minute intermission. Please arrive 30 minutes early, late entry is not permitted. For Tickets and further information, visit: https://www.cupcaketheater.com/ All Ages Welcome.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Brayden Hade