By John Dwyer
One of the premises of “The Little Mermaid” is that mermaids and mermen have the most beautiful voices. Having seen the “The Little Mermaid” at Music Mountain Theatre, I can attest to that being 100% true and especially in regards to Princess Ariel, her aunt Ursula, and her beau, the bipedal Prince Eric.
To the credit of Music Mountain Theatre, which continues to amaze in showcasing local talent and training young actors, I admit to being so impressed by the crystal clear, legit voice of Mari Pomykacz as Ariel, the brassy Bette Midler belt of Jennifer Fisher as Ursula, and the smooth, velvet lyric baritone of Gigi Gibilisco as handsome Prince Eric. Mike Winosky as King Triton has a rich operatic voice, as well.
But wait, I just got out of the gate praising the voices without letting you in on the story, which is a true delight. I came in suspect — I am familiar with the story of “The Little Mermaid” but had not seen the Disney version. Though I was weened on Disney movie adaptions of fairy tales, I have been apprehensive when they take a second bite at the apple. When the story that was a movie then becomes a stage musical, or back in the day, an ice capade, my initial thought is: “Really — you didn’t make enough money already? Is there a creative reason to produce a stage version?”
In this case, the answer is a resounding “yes.” The Disney version is simpler than the original Hans Christian Anderson tale, which I quickly re-read before the show. I remember watching it years ago on TV’s “Shirley Temple’s Storybook” (1961) with Nina Foch and Cathleen Nesbitt. The original had to do with not just falling in love with the prince, but also the yearning for an eternal soul that mermaids do not have. There was a more cerebral and spiritual element to it, as well as an ending that entices children to behave.
The Disney version is more subdued. The royal mermaid Princess Ariel has glimpsed the handsome Prince from below the water and is smitten. It is love at first sight. Her father, King Triton, does not approve. She enlists her aunt, Ursula the Sea Witch, to change her into human form so she can have a chance to wed the handsome prince. Ursula is a diva of the first magnitude, and harbors deep resentment that her brother King Triton is ruler of the sea. The story is a tale about strong individuals and the lengths they will go to attain love, power and success. Ariel’s pursuit of love may be too extreme, and she, her father and others may be forced to sacrifice more than what she bargained for.
Ariel is assisted by a trio of friends: Sebastian the crab, Flounder the fish and Scuttle the seagull. A Caribbean crab named Sebastian is played delightfully by Tim Chastain, who consistently gives strong performances. He is so at home on stage, and revels in his island accent. He had the audience in the palm of his claw. He was chosen by King Triton to watch over the king’s youngest daughter Ariel, who the king feels is getting way too loose and irrational. Drew Freeman’s Flounder, the little mermaid’s youngest sidekick, has a bucketload of charm and reels the entire audience in hook, line and sinker with his winning ways. And then there is the truly amazing Jordan Brennan as the adorable Scuttle the gull, Ariel’s advisor of all things terra firma.
The very enjoyable music, lyrics and book are by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who also were responsible for “Beauty and the Beast” and “Little Shop of Horrors.” Highlights from the show include the first song, “The World Above,” in part as it is the first time you have the privilege of hearing Ariel’s (Pomykacz) beautiful voice. Pomykacz attends Elton University, pursuing her BFA in acting. As evidenced by this show, she is going to have a long career ahead of her.
Tim Chastain as Sebastian and the entire cast are an ocean full of fun with the song “Under the Sea.” And, by the way, kudos to Louis Palena, who has directed and choreographed this very large ensemble cast, who almost all show up for this number (with the exception of a few land lubbers), as well as the equally wonderful number “Kiss the Girl.”
Jennifer Fisher has the lung capacity to strongly hold a note seemingly forever. When she sings “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” she belts out a final note that would make Patti Lupone jealous.
All six sisters of Ariel sing in perfect harmony and yet are distinct, hilariously funny individuals who have delineated their own characters. David McLoughan, Jr., who is a resident company member, has given another memorable performance as the palace cook, Chef Louis. It doesn’t take a brain sturgeon to figure out that fish is on the menu.
The costumes and set decoration are amazing. Jordan Brennan is a gifted costume designer. Whether the sea gull outfits, the mermaid ones, or Ursula, the sea witch’s part octopus design, Brennan creates amazing costumes, which have enhanced every production I have seen. This is no small feat. With little time and finding the best materials for the best price, I am always impressed on how his costuming enriches the show.
Palena has directed a true ensemble cast and the staging is exactly right. The use of hovercraft for Ursula and heelies for the rest of the fishes have all sea creatures, large and small, gliding across the stage.
“The Little Mermaid” is the story of an independent woman/mermaid who risks everything for love — an immigrant of sorts who comes from the sea, adapts to new ways and wins hearts and minds by doing the simplest of things. She loves. Waves of applause are well-deserved.
The show runs through July 22, and tickets are available online.