Would “Mona Lisa” be more alluring if it were 10 feet high? Would the Super Bowl be doubly exciting if it lasted eight quarters?
Producers of Broadway musicals must think so. Small, flawless film gems such as “The Producers,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” or “Beauty and the Beast” are regularly pumped up with marginally relevant subplots, extra tunes and production numbers for the stage. When a brilliant inventor such as Julie Taymor takes the reins, we get “The Lion King.” But sometimes we get “The Little Mermaid,” where the charming outline of the animated movie can be discerned beneath layers of unhelpful padding.
The Broadway tour at Belk Theater contains the half-dozen songs from that 1989 classic, which yanked Disney out of the animation doldrums and gave composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman their first screen success. But the watering-down of the original begins right away onstage.
Mermaid Ariel (radiant Diana Huey) sings of her longing to join humankind in “The World Above,” a new opening number by Menken and Glenn Slater. But why? She’ll sing “Part of Your World,” a better song from the film about that subject, half an hour later. Conniving squid Ursula (gleeful Jennifer Allen) still draws Ariel toward doom in “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” which now closes the first of two acts. Yet she and her cohorts, electric eels Flotsam and Jetsam, also sing the blandly sneering Menken-Slater number “Daddy’s Little Angel” not once, but twice.
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Doug Wright’s book keeps the same basic plot: Ariel gives her voice and potentially her soul to Ursula in exchange for three days with legs, which she’ll use to run into the arms of Prince Eric (Eric Kunze, singing handsomely in a shapeless role). Ursula wants power and hopes to get King Triton (dignified Steve Blanchard) to trade his soul for his daughter’s when Ariel fails. (Strangely, Ursula no longer turns into a beautiful rival for the prince’s hand, but that’s not crucial.) Wright even gives Ursula more motivation: She’s Triton’s sister, denied access to the throne by papa Poseidon.
But subplots accrue like barnacles on this once-trim vessel. The Prince heard Ariel sing as she rescued him from drowning; now he’ll choose his bride at a ball, Cinderella-style, by listening to women croon in hopes of hearing a voice that fits. Flounder, Ariel’s fishy pal, loves her unrequitedly. Ariel has six sisters, not two. Why? So they can harmonize on a 1960s girl-group song, “She’s In Love.”
Slater and Menken sometimes make a strong team, as in “Sister Act,” but this isn’t their best work. It’s not Slater’s fault he replaced Menken’s ideal partner, who died midway through “Aladdin,” but “Mermaid” emphasizes their differences. Some musical decisions, such as turning “Les Poissons” into a whack-a-mole farce, improve the piece, but many don’t. At 120 minutes, 37 more than the film (plus intermission), “Mermaid” may be a long sit for little Ariels in the audience.
Director Glenn Casale and his design team handle the lack of legs in Act 1 well, having merpeople fly on flexible rigs or stand with feet out of sight, making swimming motions with their hands. Sebastian the crab (the amusing and sometimes poignant Melvin Abston) slips on and offstage sideways, like a good crustacean. The eels (Brandon Roach and Frederick Hagreen) glide with sinister, sinuous ease on roller skates, a clever idea.
This may not be the last live “Mermaid,” however: Menken and “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda will reportedly write more songs for a live-action film. Disney apparently believes this story will have box-office legs for eternity – but should it?
The Little Mermaid
WHEN: Through July 23 at 7 p.m. Wednesday, 1 and 7 p.m. Thursday, 7 p.m. Friday, 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 12:30 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.