note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
From its rousing overture to its storybook finale, North Shore Music Theatre’s (NSMT) production of Disney family musical “The Little Mermaid” is a delightful romp under and on the sea, through the air, and on fantasy-laden terra firma.
It’s especially exciting because this musical version was updated and created specifically for the Beverly theater-in-the-round.
It also marks the return home of Winthropite bright star, Stephanie Moskal, who performed with the national tour of “Beauty and the Beast” for the past two years, and portrays mermaid sister, Atina. She also sings and dances as several ensemble characters.
The 22-member cast, skillfully directed by Michael Heitzman, captivates every youngster and young-at-heart theatergoer. Okay, maybe the continuous puns are groaners, but little kids giggle and older folks laugh approvingly.
The production also boasts superior musicianship - namely Music Director-Conductor Bruce Barnes, and 12 marvelous musicians, who enhance Charles Coes’ magical sound effects.
This production isn’t doom-and-gloomy, like Hans Christian Andersen’s original version of the fairytale he wrote in 1837. Since then, Andersen’s native country, Denmark, unveiled the now-famous statue of the little mermaid in Copenhagen Harbor in 1913; Japanese filmmakers released an anime film in 1975; Disney created its own animated film in 1989, and the revised, charming tale, with its happily-ever-after ending, swept stages on Broadway, nationwide and internationally since 2008.
Ariel, sweet, youngest daughter of widowed King Triton, is blessed with her deceased mother’s hauntingly beautiful voice - a gift that none of her six, lovely sisters has, along with her unceasing curiosity. From the time she rescues shipwrecked Prince Eric, she is determined to leave the sea, gain sealegs, and win his love, even if it means making a pact with her evil sea witch aunt, Ursula. Rising star, New York University senior, Adrienne Eller, is ideal as Ariel, with her fresh-faced appearance and lovely voice. Eller and Bruce Landry as Prince Eric are sweet together, especially during their shy, romantic encounters that culminate in their joyous wedding day.
At NSMT, besides Doug Wright’s award-winning, upbeat book, with lilting music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (Glenn Slater also co-wrote a few new songs with Menken for this stage version), this New England premiere of “The Little Mermaid” is uniquely special, with set designer Howard C. Jones’ simplistic set, fantastic stage effects and props. From a richly imagined underwater kingdom, with bubbly water to murky depths; from a ship asea, with its bells and whistles, including rope ladders, captain’s wheel, the ship’s prow, deck, etc., to Ariel’s secret undersea shrine to all things human; King Triton’s underwater empire and Prince Eric’s castle kitchen and banquet hall, “The Little Mermaid” is one enchanting illusion after another.
Merely presenting so elaborate a production in the round is magical. The actors use the aisles, elevate and descend from a hidden elevator, in a large, circular hole in the stage. Aided by Fly Guy, (flying choreographer Paul Rubin, who has staged award-winning productions of “Mary Poppins,” “Peter Pan,” and other hits), Ariel swims to the top of the sea, attached to a harness and wire. Feathery Scuttle the Seagull (Freddie Kimmel) flies across the stage, flapping his invisible wings; and more. Meanwhile, iridescent umbrellaed jellyfish undulate in the aisles.
And AC Ciulla’s choreography keeps the show moving swimmingly. Underwater creatures move and breathe as though they are swimming, floating. Ballet and tap numbers are creative, energetic, and enchanting.
But wait! That’s not all! Deep in the kelpy, inky, waters, evil sea witch Ursula (the octopus) reigns, spouting and hatching her malignant demands and horrible plots to steal Ariel’s beautiful voice, destroy her own brother, King Triton, (regal Mark Campbell), then rule and churn up the seas. Kecia Lewis as Ursula is superlative. When she vents her malevolence in bombastic, mocking renditions of “Daddy’s Little Angel” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” the theater vibrates, her voice ringing to the rafters.
Kurt Alger’s lavish costumes, from Sebastian the Crab’s (crowd-pleaser J.Cameron Barnett) bright red torso, to King Triton’s regal shell crown and glittering body, to Ariel and her sisters’ mermaid outfits, and Ariel’s mid-air transformation to a maiden with legs are dazzling eye candy. So are Flounder the Fish’s (Shawn Platzer) sunshiny, yellow costume, a stark contrast to black-tentacled Ursula’s two creepy, slithery assistants, electric eels Flotsam (Jeremy Pasha), and Jetsam (Paul Louis Lessard). This duo’s synchronized antics are shocking - literally - bizzzzzing, buzzzzzzing, and zapping at Ursula’s bidding. As Ariel wants to become “Part of Your World,” and live in “The World Above,” theatergoers of all ages will love this encounter “Under the Sea”.
BOX INFO: Two-act musical, based on the 1989 Disney animated film and Hans Christian Andersen’s beloved fairy tale,appearing at North Shore Music Theatre (NSMT), 62 Dunham Road, Beverly, through July 27. Performances: Tuesday-Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m.; matinees, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, at 2 p.m. ; extended dates, July 24, at 2,7:30 p.m.; July 26,27, at 2 p.m.; Tickets: $50-$75.Check for free audience enrichment events. For tickets and more information, call the Box Office at 978-232-7200 or visit nsmt.org.