Friday, January 11, 2008

The Little Mermaid


Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, book by Doug Wright. Dir. Francesca Zambello. Chor. Stephen Meaar. Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. (CLOSED)

Though the reviews were not kind, critics are more mixed on George Tsypin's sets and Tatiana Noginova's costumes, especially those love-'em-or-hate-'em Heelies. There are generally high marks for the cast, especially newcomer Sierra Boggess, Sherie Rene Scott, and Norm Lewis (and his abs), though most agree that the supporting players are underused. One thing all the critics can agree on: The Little Mermaid is no Lion King.

Wall Street Journal A-
(Terry Teachout) Great special effects aren't enough to keep a show open -- if they were, Disney's "Tarzan" would still be running -- but "The Little Mermaid" has more to offer than mere visual trickery. Like all the best Disney musicals, it also has a good score, much of which comes straight from the soundtrack of the 1989 film. Alan Menken and Glenn Slater have added several additional songs to the Broadway version, but none of them can compare in quality to "Kiss the Girl," "Les Poissons," "Part of Your World," "Poor Unfortunate Souls" and "Under the Sea," all written for the screen by Mr. Menken and the late Howard Ashman and all staged with the utmost effectiveness. "Kiss the Girl," which is set in an enchanted lagoon full of flying fish and fluorescent frogs, is as sweet a piece of theatrical fantasy as you could hope to see.

Associated Press B+
(Michael Kuchwara) The long-awaited stage version of the 1989 Disney animated film, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, may have a few uneasy moments shoehorning the story in between all that lavish, and some might say unnecessary, underwater spectacle. Yet forget the overused and now cliche "theme-park" adjective. This musical, buoyed by one of the best Disney film scores and a delightful new leading lady, succeeds as enjoyable family entertainment. And, yes, the sets are big, but then, so is the ocean.

CurtainUp B-
(Simon Saltzman) The show has been directed by Francesca Zambello who has an eye for spectacle. But she appears to be an artist out of her depth trying to devise a cohesive and coherent plan to compliment the basic story that the Disney collaborators based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. The musical is awash in eye-catching distractions that compete with the players for our attention. George Tsypin's settings are an ingenious array of Plexiglass waves and huge mobile corkscrew like sculptures that glide, move and define by their looming presence both the iridescent undersea kingdom (gorgeous lighting by Natasha Katz) and the world above.

USA Today C+
(Elysa Gardner) But the new Mermaid is ultimately less than the sum of its impressive parts, offering neither the richly imaginative spectacle of "The Lion King" nor the old-fashioned vitality and charm of "Mary Poppins." On the other hand, anyone inclined to dismiss Disney's latest extravaganza as a triumph of flash over feeling will be hard-pressed to do so. Wright, Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater — who helped craft a bunch of new songs to accompany the ones from the movie, which Menken wrote with his late collaborator Howard Ashman — have developed the tale of a young mermaid's longing to live among humans into an endearing, if rather conventional, love story.

New Jersey Star-Ledger C
(Michael Sommers) How does one write a shrug? With all due respect to the makers of the latest Disney screen-to-stage incarnation, that's my essential reaction to "The Little Mermaid," which opened yesterday at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

Entertainment Weekly C
(Steve Daly) The under-the-sea members of the company are also made to simulate aquatic agility by swanning about on wheeled footwear, and the resulting arms-akimbo body language doesn't feel floaty at all — it more evokes a "Xanadu" where nobody's in on the campiness.

The Daily News C
(Joe Dziemianowicz) The original songs from the film by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman are as wonderful as ever. "Under the Sea" is still rippling in my brain. If the rest of the show - including Doug Wright's book - was up to this standard, it would be easier to recommend it. There's no faulting the cast; they're fantastic...But for all its fancy tricks, the show's give-you-chills moment comes with the simplest of effects - the feisty Ariel sheds her tail and transforms from mermaid to girl. I silently marveled, "Wow, she's got legs!" Whether that can be said of Disney's new live-action cartoon remains to be seen.

Theatermania C-
(David Finkle) The only things keeping this adaptation of the original 1988 animated film from utter mediocrity are three enthralling new numbers by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater: a cute ditty called "She's in Love," a traditional Disney nonsense song dubbed "Positoovity," and "If Only," a ballad for four main characters that could someday come to be known as the Verdi-like quartet from The Little Mermaid...Of course, the six original songs by Menken and the late Howard Ashman are intact; but they don't have the same impact they had on screen. This is true of both the Oscar-winning "Under the Sea" and especially the swingy "Kiss the Girl," which, like much of the show, has been vulgarized and Las Vegasized by director Francesca Zambello, set designer George Tsypin, costumer Tatiana Noginova, and choreographer Stephen Mear. And speaking of the set, wassup with those humungous corkscrews Tsypin keeps rolling in and revolving?

The Record C-
(Robert Feldberg) "The Little Mermaid" isn't bad; it's bland. It's done well enough that kids up to age 8 or so might enjoy the color, the music and the elemental mermaid-meets-prince story. But even they might be puzzled by some of the creative decisions...The show's main brainstorm is having most of the sea creatures glide around on Heelys -- sneakers with small wheels in back. Like so much else in the show, they don't seem part of a grand scheme. There's no rhyme or reason as to when they're used.

Newsday C-
(Linda Winer) Admittedly, the Heelys are neat. Instead of hanging fish and mer-people on wires, Zambello, choreographer Stephen Mear and costume designer Tatiana Noginova make characters appear to swim on those roller-shoes that have wheels in their heels. Otherwise, deep-sea living is represented by what looks like shredded plastic shower curtains. The show has a seashell-soap-dish aesthetic, sprinkled with pearlized fixtures from a kitsch '50s bathroom. "Under the Sea," the jaunty calypso song that won an Oscar for composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, now looks like a Brazilian carnival with a nautical theme. Day-Glo colors and lights are overused with the delighted indulgence of people who'd never been to a disco.

Variety C-
(David Rooney) Flying fishtails! Well, not exactly. Instead, the singing sirens of "The Little Mermaid" glide about on Heelys, their arms whirling in faux balletic motion, occasionally accompanied by the thwack of an errant fin or tail punishing some hapless ensemble member. If those figures sound more like Ice Capades refugees than the enchanting inhabitants of a persuasively rendered, magical underwater kingdom, then that's part of the problem with Disney's latest bid for Broadway residency. The massive brand power of the beloved 1989 animated feature might make disappointment over the show's diluted charms irrelevant. But the impression remains that this is a case of winning material hitched to the wrong creative team...The overall effect is that of a department store holiday window conjured by some display queen with artistic pretensions and a plastic fetish -- rarely of a mysterious world fathoms below. Only when Tsypin's Plexiglass sculptures are cleared and descriptive detail is left largely to Natasha Katz's bewitching lighting and Sven Ortel's video effects does something enchanting begin to happen.

Talkin' Broadway C-
(Matthew Murray) As directed by Francesca Zambello, choreographed by Stephen Mear, and designed by George Tsypin (sets), Tatiana Noginova (costumes), and Natasha Katz (lights), the only concept this Little Mermaid seems to promote is about producing audience-friendly musicals on the cheap. This isn't to say that Zambello and company don't hit on some visually satisfying moments, if only by the law of averages. There are times that the arrangements of actors and set pieces recall nautical maps and Renaissance oil paintings, giving the show a suavely stylistic sense of time and place. And despite the bargain-basement look of actors rolling around on Heely-like shoes to simulate swimming, it gives the undersea scenes a fervently fluid look that doesn't waterspout you back to the surface. This is unquestionably the prettiest ugly show in town. What's missing is any sense of the kind of magic and wonder that the better Disney stage shows trade on, and even lesser Disney animated films can manage in spades.

Time Out NY C-
(David Cote) The source material is both the greatest draw and drawback for these cartoon-to-musical contraptions. As multimillion-dollar children’s theater, The Little Mermaid is passable, but adults will pine for a wizard like Taymor to inject art.

(Jeremy McCarter) For "The Little Mermaid," Disney’s third attempt in as many years to duplicate Taymor’s achievement (lasting aesthetic triumph + dump trucks full of money), the company has gone upmarket. It has entrusted the story of mermaid Ariel (Sierra Boggess) falling for a handsome bipedal prince (Sean Palmer) to Francesca Zambello, who’s known mainly for her opera work. She has tasked her designers, some of whom have bios riddled with gigs at the Met and La Scala, with creating an undersea world while abiding by the somewhat quixotic rule “No wires, no water.” As it happens, you’ll still spot the occasional wire, as when Ariel is hoisted upwards to join the human world in the fly space of the Lunt-Fontanne. But you won’t see water. In fact, you won’t even imagine water—which, in a fish story like this one, is an ominous sign. The wobbly charm of this musical, the way its bursts of fantasy keep sputtering into stretches of tedium, gives us the clearest sense yet of why it’s so tricky to make these much-loved Disney stories come to life onstage.

Chicago Tribune C-
(Chris Jones) “The Little Mermaid” is one profound family story, rich in metaphor and passion and wisdom. It should have made a great Broadway show. It really didn’t. Thanks to a tidal wave of stellar individual performances — with Tituss Burgess’ vocally stunning Sebastian at the top of the list — the hugely talented human components of this latest Disney extravaganza save their show from the rocks. But despite the pleasures of their performances, the piece fails in its central obligation: finding a viable theatrical metaphor for the underwater universe that forms the bedrock of the beloved cartoon.

New York Sun C-
(Eric Grode) "Mary Poppins" excepted, Disney's musicals have hardly been known for their dancing. That show's co-choreographer, Stephen Mear, takes the reins here, and the results are largely successful. A gaggle of gulls navigates a funky tap routine while wearing giant clown shoes, and Ariel's six sisters cut loose with infectious bravado in the girl-group stomp "She's in Love." But Mr. Tsypin's frequent use of Mylar strips along the bottom of the stage, designed to draw attention away from the actors' legs and toward their undulating tails, necessitates an awful lot of jumping as the performers make their way up and down the stage. And Ms. Zambello's much-discussed use of those wheeled Heely shoes, while permitting the cast to simulate underwater movement with gliding ease, constrains all but the nimblest performers during several protracted dance sequences.

The Journal News D+
(Jacques Le Sourd) It's important to remember that this is a Disney musical, so the accent is on the show's longevity: There are no popping star turns to be missed when the actors move on. Every role can be smoothly filled ad infinitum...Not one of these talented people is encouraged to shine more brightly than the set. The show's book, improbably enough, is by Doug Wright, the author of "Grey Gardens" and "I Am My Own Wife." Wright injects one or two pale wisecracks, but is generally underemployed here. But the only name that really counts here is the one above the title. And that is, simply, Disney.

The Washington Post D+
(Peter Marks) Somewhere out there in the choppy foam, however, the creators of the new stage version that opened last night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre let the compass slip overboard. In director Francesca Zambello's confused production -- a morass of mechanical characters, syrupy new songs and gaudily irrelevant set pieces -- all the warmth and charm of the film manages to get away...They're all on Heelys, those sneakers with the built-in wheels in their heels. The footwear allows them to glide across the stage, a clever solution to how to simulate the locomotion of underwater creatures. Even here, though, "The Little Mermaid" is a victim of stolid planning. The activity ends up looking more like skating than it does like swimming -- just as this "Mermaid" ends up feeling less like a product meant for Broadway than for another sphere of entertainment: Disney on Ice.

The Hollywood Reporter D+
(Frank Scheck) The comely Sierra Boggess and the handsome Sean Palmer well fulfill the vocal and physical requirements of their roles as the mermaid Ariel and Prince Eric, even though it's hard not to compare them unfavorably with the satirical take-offs on such iconic characters in the current film "Enchanted." While there are plenty of Broadway stage veterans onstage, most of them are either underused (Norm Lewis' ab-baring King Triton and Eddie Korbich's tap-dancing seagull); overly familiar in their shtick (John Treacy Egan's stereotypical French chef); or simply underwhelming (Tituss Burgess' uncharismatic Sebastian the crab). Only Sherie Rene Scott's broadly entertaining (and vividly costumed) turn as the sea witch Ursula manages to stand out amid the noisy proceedings.

New York Post D-
(Clive Barnes) Oddly enough, it's George Tsypin's settings and Tatiana Noginova's costumes - with their breathtaking vulgarity and equally breathtaking confidence - that give this "Little Mermaid" a certain flap to its flippers in a sea of almost calculated mediocrity. At least they showed a decently shipwrecked spirit, with their crazy ship, glistening revolving columns, glassily transparent seascapes and nuttily extravagant costumes, with Natasha Katz's lighting joining in what seemed an elaborated joke. Underneath all this baroque ornamentation was a tiny, tinny little musical struggling for its life.

The New York Times D-
(Ben Brantley) The get-out-of-my-way water, which periodically slides in like so many push-button car windows, is only one of the obstructions to be wrestled with by the cast members playing fish, seabirds and merfolk in Disney’s charm-free $15 million adaptation of its charming 1989 animated movie of the same title. Directed by Francesca Zambello, this “Little Mermaid” burdens its performers with ungainly guess-what-I-am costumes (by Tatiana Noginova) and a distracting set (by George Tsypin) awash in pastels gone sour and unidentifiable giant tchotchkes that suggest a Luau Lounge whipped up by an acid-head heiress in the 1960s. The whole enterprise is soaked in that sparkly garishness that only a very young child — or possibly a tackiness-worshiping drag queen — might find pretty.

Village Voice F
(Michael Feingold) Forgive me if this article contains a lot of typos. I've just been to see the stage version of Disney's The Little Mermaid, and as a result I'm suffering from severe eye-ache. The word garish barely begins to convey the ugly crassness with which director Francesca Zambello and her design team—no, let's make that "anti-design team"— of George Tsypin (sets), Tatiana Noginova (costumes), and Natasha Katz (lighting) have infused every moment of what I assume was intended to be a charming children's entertainment.

WSJ A- 12; Associated Press B+ 11; CurtainUp B- 9; USA Today C+ 8; NJ Star-Ledger C 7; EW C 7; The Daily News C 7; Theatermania C- 6; The Record C- 6; Newsday C- 6; Variety C- 6; Talkin' Broadway C- 6; TONY C- 6; NYMag C- 6; Chicago Tribune C- 6; New York Sun C- 6; Journal News D+ 5; Washington Post D+ 5; Hollywood Reporter D+ 5; New York Post D- 3; The New York Times D- 3; Village Voice F 1; TOTAL: 137/22 = 6.23 (C-)

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