Lawrence Toppman

Charlotte Ballet offers romantic, frothy ‘Little Mermaid’

A prince and the mysterious woman he finds at the seashore (James Kopecky and Alessandra Ball James) celebrate in “The Little Mermaid.”
A prince and the mysterious woman he finds at the seashore (James Kopecky and Alessandra Ball James) celebrate in “The Little Mermaid.” Peter Zay

Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” tells of a creature who sacrifices her gorgeous voice in exchange for legs. Those let her walk on Earth in pursuit of a human prince, though she constantly feels as if she’s walking on knives.

He dallies with her but goes through with an arranged marriage. To become a mermaid again, she must kill him and drip his blood on her feet, which will turn back into fins. When she refuses, she turns into sea foam and dissolves, though God relents and offers her the chance to earn a human soul by doing 300 years of good works as a disembodied spirit.

Well, that ain’t a ballet you’re gonna show to kids. So Charlotte Ballet’s “The Little Mermaid” softens the story, suppressing pain and leading us firmly to a happy ending with the briefest of unhappy detours.

Choreographer Mark Diamond sets the light tone at once: Sea creatures wriggle or dart across the Knight Theater stage, and a sea slug crawls laboriously up an aisle. He gets dancers to imitate the beasts they play; a turtle raised to its back feet steps tentatively along and then ends up writhing on all fours again.

The mermaid (Alessandra Ball James on Friday night) expresses a desire to go “up there,” and a sea witch (Jamie Dee in a cameo) complies with a potion. Diamond cleverly overcomes the handicap of having the star’s legs imprisoned in fins in Act 1; she’s lifted and carried like a precious object.

She gets on her feet in Act 2, enchanting her prince (James Kopecky, who often looked nervous when partnering her) and winning over his friends at a ball that suggests the “choose-a-girlfriend” scenes in “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty.” When the prince’s disdainful mother introduces his long-standing fiancée (Sarah Hayes Harkins), the prince has a dilemma.

A fairy tale needs magic, supplied in large part here by Aimee J. Coleman’s witty/elegant costumes and Howard Jones’ handsome sets, both new. (The audience rightfully “ooohed” when the ballroom appeared.) Jennifer Propst’s lighting and Michael Baumgarten’s lighting projections both work, though sometimes in opposition: If you create the illusion of water with fabric and illumination, subsequent shots of underwater photography can be jarring.

The show has a Russian flavor, not least because Diamond took most of the music from the Russian composers Reinhold Gliere and Alexander Borodin. Gliere’s “Russian Sailors’ Dance,” famous for its inclusion in the Soviet ballet “The Red Poppy,” here becomes a bravura sextet for six officers in the divertissement-heavy Act 2.

For all the showily exciting moments, it’s James you’ll recall; she provides the warm emotional component the show needs. She and Harkins alternate throughout the run in the roles of the mermaid and the fiancée; no doubt the piece will change colors from night to night as they switch.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

The Little Mermaid

When: Through March 20 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St..

Running time: 100 minutes with one intermission.

Tickets: $25-$105.

Details: 704-372-1000, charlotteballet.org.

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