Impeccable vocals and magical effects bring audiences ‘Under the Sea’ at ‘Disney’s The Little Mermaid’

Disney’s The Little Mermaid

Theatre Cedar Rapids — through June 12

Theatre Cedar Rapids was absolutely buzzing when we arrived for their production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Families everywhere. A sea of lighted tiaras, wands and children in their dress-up Disney gear. When we sat down, there was a young woman in front of us, adorned in sparkling headgear herself, who turned and said “I hope you’re singing because I’m probably gonna sing!” My date and I smiled at each other as we rocked out among a smattered gaggle of other Disney nerds, humming or belting to the recorded preshow music.

I, like most girls of the age I was when this movie was originally released in theatres, felt myself more and more excited each moment to finally see Ariel in the flesh. I surely dreamed of this for a good decade after seeing the movie (yes, well into my late teens). And now I was finally getting my chance! Everywhere you looked there was the new generation of Mermaid adorers, but you also didn’t have to look far to see those of us who grew up with that original experience, dreaming thereafter of life under the sea.

The experience did not disappoint. Benjamin Schmidt’s music direction was just beautiful. The music never faltered throughout this epic score and the singing was near perfection almost across the board.

Dylan Ascher as Flounder -- photo by Strutmann Photo
Dylan Ascher as Flounder — photo by Strutmann Photo
The show is alive with colors. The costumes (Joni Dee Sackett; some rented) are stunning and magical. The royal Mer-family all have incredible wigs of pastels and headpieces, all atop midsections with embellishments reminiscent of Arabian Nights, and bottoms of shimmering scales and fins. There were purple and pink jellyfish and electric green eels and a tigery-sandy pair of large noggined seahorses, all costumed with a mix of reality and theatricality. Specifically, Ursula’s costume was brilliant, and, coupled with Marcia Hughes’ powerful vocals, the character was clearly not to be trifled with.

There were little magic moments in the audience as well. Neon jellyfish danced in the aisles, and there were special moments during the show where the kiddos (and adults, of course) with light up wands could let them sparkle together, a wash of glittering in the audience (this was, honestly hard on my eyes at times, but it helped knowing how in awe the kids were to be able to interact with the story on stage). And, during one of the numbers, a gentle raining of bubbles came from the ceiling (a personal favorite of mine).

The lighting (Amanda Mayfield) was well used, though I’d hoped for more in certain moments. When King Triton (Jake Stigers) blasts Ariel (Nikki Stewart)’s secret hiding spot, I wanted to see reds and yellows exploding across the stage, but instead there was a strobe light & sound effects while the set unit was pulled offstage in semi-darkness. There were some wonderful gobos used to create texture on the stage in blues and greens, and sometimes they’d dance and whirl when magic was happening. I loved that imagery and wanted even more of it in the underwater world. It denoted a place where things never stop moving, where water was always flowing.

The set (Derek Easton) was simple considering the spectacle of the show. The stage was mostly barren while different units were brought on and taken off — a ship, Ariel’s cave, Ursula’s lair — all of which looked great in and of themselves. Most of the time, the stage was empty and available for the large dance numbers. I did wish that there were some levels to the set. Not a lot, but some difference of height upstage. When we think of the sea, we think of the fish scattering in all directions: up, down, left, right: There were only right and left in this scenic imagining. I enjoyed when the ship was brought on, as it was some activity above the ground level (outside of the moments of wire work).

Marcia Hughes as Ursula, flanked by Aaron Canterbury (L) as Jetsam and Jay Burken as Flotsam -- photo by Struttmann Photo
Marcia Hughes as Ursula, flanked by Aaron Canterbury (L) as Jetsam and Jay Burken as Flotsam — photo by Struttmann Photo

It’s incredible to imagine that, at it’s heart, this is community theatre — because wow could these performers dance! The choreography was pretty intense, filled with energy and joy, and the actors totally rocked it. In particular, “Under the Sea” and “Positoovity” were super fun for me to watch. There were some well-crafted, more intimate moments as well, as during “One Step Closer,” where Prince Eric (Jon Turk) sang beautifully while he and Ariel danced easily and sweetly with one another. They were all on point, in sync, and feeling it. Kudos to the choreographer, Alvon Reed, for finding wonderful movements for individuals and the group that really filled the space, and to the actors who made it come alive on stage.

Ariel’s sisters were a highlight for me. I loved their Act 1 song, and that they had actual personalities in the stage version. The actresses playing these parts — Erika Bailey, Tera Edmunds, Britta Fults, Erin Helm, Sophie Lindwall and Krista Neumann — were great, and equally wonderful to watch as their human foils in the second half of the show. I was especially impressed with Ursula’s eely minions (Jay Burken as Flotsam & Aaron Canterbury as Jetsam) whose joy in their villainy was apparent throughout. Not only did they have wonderful chemistry with each other, but their physicality was by far some of the best and most consistent on stage.

Scuttle (Benjamin R. Lafayette) and Flounder (Dylan Ascher) were sweet and cartoon-y sidekicks to the female lead. Lafayette’s big movements and squawking were aptly that of a fumbling, slightly dim seagull and Ascher’s confident portrayal of Flounder was filled with an adoration for Ariel that reminded me of a young boy with an innocent crush on his babysitter.

Ariel’s father figures in the show had lovely vocals that really shined. However, the characters fell a little flat for me. King Triton would have benefited from more specificity in his movements, making his character seem more in control: someone to be loved and feared by his daughters, subjects and sister. And Greg Smith’s Sebastian, though full of wonderfully explosive energy, vacillated accents from Jamaican to British, which was distracting at times. I wished that Sebastian would have committed to full-on-British, departing from the original vocal patterns of the character in the movie, but maintaining that stuffiness and worry inherent to the part.

Nikki Stewart as Ariel -- photo by Struttmann Photo
Nikki Stewart as Ariel — photo by Struttmann Photo
Ariel herself was — wow. Just wow. Nikki Stewart was attempting to embody what is quite possibly the quintessential little girls’ dream role, and she succeeded 100 percent. Let’s face it, there’s not a whole lot to Ariel — but there could be, and Stewart showed us this. Her vocals were liquid and pitch perfect and her dancing was incredibly confident. While some people might be meant to be a doctor, a teacher, a writer, Stewart is quite clearly meant to be on the stage, infusing characters with vulnerability and honesty.

The story is different than what you might expect. Though I really loved the featured feminism and theme of independence in the show (Ariel doesn’t need a prince to saver her, folks!!), the tweaks made to the story also lessened the stakes, such that the climax of the stage version isn’t as exciting as the story leading up to it might demand. Also, in this retelling, there is almost no contact between the human world and Mer-world until the very end, when all obstacles had been removed. Even though the humans are encountering a strange new world that proved their sea myths were filled with truth, they seemed unwavered by it on stage. I was surprised no one ran off screaming at the sight of fish-people with magical powers. Instead they stood together and shook hands as if nothing too incredible had actually happened.

There were some physicality inconsistencies, as well. In particular, when on wires (which was very impressive and fun to watch), the people seemed to be flying as opposed to swimming. Ariel “flew” underwater as she reached for the surface instead of “swam;” however, Scuttle actually “flies” through the air so the visuals were confusing.

Even though I have my gripes, I cannot deny the power of this show. The overall production was full of eye candy, feminist threads, delightful dancing, impeccable singing and at the center of it all (most importantly) an Ariel who brought us that princess I fell in love with so completely when I was nine.

If you can grab a seat for the show, I recommend doing so. TCR has been adding performances to the run, so there may still be some great seats available. Disney’s The Little Mermaid runs through June 12; tickets are $24–39.

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