`Disney's The Little Mermaid' lands on Broadway but never finds its sea legs

Critic's corner

January 14, 2008|By Ben Brantley | Ben Brantley,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Loved the shoes. Loathed the show.

OK, I exaggerate. I didn't like the shoes all that much. But the wheel-heeled footwear known as merblades, which allow stage-bound dancers to simulate gliding underwater, provides the only remotely graceful elements in the musical blunderbuss called Disney's The Little Mermaid, which opened last week at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater.

A variation on Heelys, a skate hybrid popular among children, merblades endow their wearers with the ability to skim hard surfaces with a near-balletic lightness. Unfortunately, a state of lightness is difficult to sustain when you're being attacked on all sides by an aggressive ocean that appears to be made of hard plastic.

The get-out-of-my-way water, which periodically slides in like so many push-button car windows, is only one of the obstructions to be wrestled with by the cast members in Disney's charm-free $15 million adaptation of its charming 1989 animated movie of the same title.

Directed by Francesca Zambello, this Little Mermaid burdens its performers with ungainly guess-what-I-am costumes (by Tatiana Noginova) and a distracting set (by George Tsypin) awash in pastels gone sour and unidentifiable giant tchotchkes.

The motto of this production could be, "You can never go broke underestimating the taste of preschoolers." In 1989, the film of The Little Mermaid, which signaled a renaissance in Disney animation and featured songs by the composer Alan Menken and the lyricist Howard Ashman that were regularly described as "Broadway-caliber," was heralded as that rare fairy-tale cartoon that could be enjoyed just as much by grown-ups as by children.

But in a perverse process of devolution, The Little Mermaid arrives on Broadway stripped of the movie's generation-crossing appeal. Coherence of plot, endearing quirks of character, even the melodious wit of the original score (supplemented by new, substandard songs by Menken and the lyricist Glenn Slater) have been swallowed by an unfocused spectacle.

The Little Mermaid was Disney's first animated film to feature a newly empowered breed of heroine who gets the prince but doesn't need saving by him. In this case that's Ariel (played here by Sierra Boggess), the title character, a princess of the deep who defies her mighty father, King Triton (Norm Lewis) to pursue the handsome Prince Eric (Sean Palmer), a nonmarine form of life, on land. To do so she must enlist the aid of Ursula (Sherie Rene Scott), the evil sea witch, who transforms Ariel's fish tail into human legs - but at what price?

If you have any intention of seeing this musical, please rent the movie first, or you will be utterly, you know, at sea. The ending, with its war-of-the-elements climax, is incomprehensible. And though the film's supporting sea creatures, both frolicsome and dastardly, are all on board, it's hard to figure out here just who and what they're supposed to be.

The choreographer, Stephen Mear, arranges his dancers onstage in an assortment of standard chorus-line variations, accented by swimming arm motions. But even a pull-out-all-the-stops number like the calypso-flavored "Under the Sea" fails to hold the attention. This is partly because so many of the cast members seem distracted, as if they were trying to remember when and how to pull their tails, flippers, wings or whatever else they've been assigned.

But the problems go beyond inconvenient costumes. Zambello, best known as an adventurous director of operas, rarely lets jokes, songs or set pieces register clearly.

This Little Mermaid feels like a cynical reversal of a once-traditional pattern of art and commerce. It used to be that the show came first, followed by merchandising tie-ins. Thoroughly plastic and trinketlike, this show seems less like an interpretation of a movie musical than of the figurines and toys it inspired.

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