The Little Mermaid

Fantasy Playhouse Children’s Theatre is running the fun play The Little Mermaid this weekend and next at the Von Braun Center Playhouse.  This is an adaptation of the nearly 200-year-old Hans Christian Andersen tale, wherein a young mermaid falls in love with a prince, and gives up her voice in return for legs, so that she can get to know him better. This production is a spectacle for the eyes, with amazing technical elements, and enough story-telling to keep the kiddies entertained.

Luckily, this isn’t a faithful copy of the original story, because in those days “children’s stories” were written to teach a lesson, and quite often included horrid endings for the protagonists.  The original “Little Mermaid” was no exception, with the title character NOT being loved by the Prince, and dissolving into sea foam at the end.  Have no fear for the young ones you bring to this play, however, because this version is closer to the Disney movie than the original.  Thankfully, it is also NOT a re-telling of the popular movie, and contains some fun new characters all its own.  The playwright, William Glennon, did a fine job of crafting a play for the younger crowd, with some fun silly humor, clear distinctions between good and evil, and even treating the love relationship as merely “good friends”.

Lezlie Lanza’s guiding hand as director successfully allowed the actors to find their distinctive interesting characters.  Unfortunately, her staging generally failed to take full use of the available acting space, and missed the mark in driving the script’s major plot points and key character arcs.  The blocking was a bit cramped at times, with many of the scenes unnecessarily taking place along a narrow strip of the stage.  A major plot element is that the Mermaid’s song is so entrancing that it can be used like a Siren’s call, but for that to be clear, the effect on her listeners has to be over-exaggerated from the beginning.  The pivotal “growing up” moments for both the Prince and the Little Mermaid were both unfortunately muddy.  When the Prince is trying to save the ship about to shipwreck, he is scripted to overcome his fear of the water, and dive out of his boat to swim to the rock, but the failure to use the thrust portion of the stage meant that the audience only sees him crawl (swim?) out from behind the curtain and appear on the rock, completely glossing over the significance of the brave act for this character.  Likewise, the Mermaid’s key confrontation with the Sea Witch was a muddled mess.  In the script, it is a scene of mounting tension, that culminates in the Mermaid, all alone, overcoming the Witch with the power of her song, and freeing the imprisoned Sea Urchin while the Witch is frozen.  Instead, this scene is rushed through, with no real extra tension, and while the Mermaid and Witch are talking, one of Neptune’s court members just sort of wanders over and frees the Urchin, making one wonder why we needed the Mermaid at all, and negating the sacrifice she made to return to Mermaid form to perform the rescue.

The individual performances were quite well done, and in the appropriate style for this type of show and the intended target audience.  Lauren Carlton, as the title character, has the amazing singing voice required for the part, and carries her role through effortlessly.  Nick Morris, as “Ollie”, the Prince, nicely plays both the timid  boy he starts out as, and also the confident young man he becomes after he finds a friend.  Stella Broussard, as the “Sea Witch” nicely captures the “bad guy” stereotype with cackling glee.  With some vocal training, she will have the perfect resonant projection for this type of character.  Seth Shelton and Theresa Gardiner, as “Turt” and “Tort” are clearly having an absolute blast with their characters, and the audience loves them both.  Romana Kreipe, as the Prince’s dancing teacher, is an absolute stand-out, making the most of her short stage time, and also fills in with beautiful uncredited off-stage flute music to accompany the Mermaid’s singing.  This is a very nice ensemble of actors, and the remainder of the principal performers–Steve Kreipe, Liz Lincks, Lesley Harper, and Ryan Rorick–as the members of Neptune’s royal family and court, adequately carry their supporting roles and provide some fun moments.

The technical elements, overseen by Technical Director Bradley Cooper, are where this show really shines.  Kudos to the stage manager, Liz Scott, for a well-run show with smooth transitions from one scene to the next.  The Prince’s brief drowning scene is especially impressive with the choreographed effect created by the flies and scenery.  One almost wishes the Prince would drown a little longer, because the effect is over so quickly some of the younger audience members may not even realize what’s happening.  The set, designed by Bradley Cooper and Lezlie Lanza, is brilliant, making full use of the flies, and well-constructed, imaginative, rolling set pieces.  Elaine Hubbard’s costumes are very impressive, and some of the outfits are downright stellar.  Combined with the makeup by Wynn Oldham, and hair by Jennifer Baker, the trio manages to populate the undersea world with a variety of recognizable sea creatures, while still creating distinctive character looks for the important roles. The sound design by Gordon Williamson was an excellent addition to the production, providing good atmospherics when required. The props, by Sammy and Meredith Sledd, were very nice, except that the rather critical magic box was entirely disappointing, appearing to be a cheap tin thing better suited for the recycle bin.  The lighting, by Cynthia Meyer did not quite manage to help differentiate between the underwater world and the surface world, leaving that task almost entirely to the scenery.  Sadly, the Playhouse only owns one lighting instrument capable of creating a wavy-water effect, and it almost completely disappeared once the rest of the lights came up.  Other than that, the only real difference between the light above and below the water, if anything, was that the bottom of the ocean seemed brighter than the surface.

Overall, the Little Mermaid is an entertaining evening, worth the price of admission for the technical elements alone, though it is more than just that.  It is a lovely story, and the kids will enjoy the fun characters and silliness, even if the character arcs and general plot points aren’t as clear as they could be.  The show is running through 1 May, with shows Fridays through Sunday evenings, with weekend matinees.  Show times and ticket information can be found here.