REVIEW: Area Stage Co’s Immersive Splash Into Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”

Aaron Hagos as Sebastian sings “Kiss the Girl” to Ariel, played by Josslyn Shaw, and Eric, played by Henry 
Thrasher (photo credit: Giancarlo Rodaz)

The Hans Christian Anderson fairytale of The Little Mermaid ushered in a Renaissance for Walt Disney Animation when it first premiered in 1989. A feat of breathtaking animation with timeless songs by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, the original film has been re-interpreted in everything from direct to VHS sequels, a live action remake and even a Broadway musical premiering at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 2008. While the show did not soar to new heights like juggernauts of Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, the tale of Ariel has been making waves on the stage in Area Stage Co’s immersive production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Carnival Theatre from now until August 27th with tickets available here.

Stepping (swimming?) into the space, you are thrust into a seaside tavern where wenches and sailors lure you to your seats. A rowdy troupe of bar musicians cheers and strums through a set of rousing shanties before laying down the house rules in a pastiche of the classic sea-faring tune “Drunken Sailor.” Set designer Frank Oliva was tasked with transforming the malleable black box theater into an imaginative, undersea world. With distressed driftwood, ship masts and a figurehead of a mermaid, Oliva’s eye for detail is unparalleled with every bit of detritus feeling freshly washed ashore. Alongside Oliva’s set, the lighting of Joe Naftal works perfectly in tandem with a myriad of cues creating a variety of underwater and land environments, from “Scuttle’s Perch” to “The Crow’s Nest.” As for the immersive aspect of the show, there are two kinds of options for tickets, the general admission where the audience is seated as actors dash in and out of various scenes and the premium seats that put you square in the middle of the action. In the premium seats audience members are advised to put their personal items beneath the seat as actors get up close and personal with the crowd.

Aaron Hagos, who also plays Sebastian, greets guests in the Grotto seating area before the show begins (photo credit: Ariany Cespedes)

The nautical framing of the show is immediately justified as we’re introduced to the ship of Prince Eric (Henry Thrasher) alongside his servant Grimsby (John Mazuelos) and the Pilot (Nelson Rodriguez) navigating the stormy seas as he regales the crew with a tale of King Triton’s temper controlling over the ocean’s tides in the shanty “Fathoms Below.” While the film cut the sequence down to a short introduction to our characters, composer Alan Menken teamed up with lyricist Glenn Slater to flesh the track into a greater backstory. 

Diving into the ocean, we meet the steadfast patriarch King Triton (Frank Montoto) and his seven mermaid daughters, Arista (Isis Palma), Aquata (Brette Raia-Curah), Atina (Caila Katz), Andrina (Karina Fernandez), Allana (Katie Duerr) and Adella (Michelle Gordon) as they prepare for a royal concert lead by the concertmaster, a neurotic crab named Sebastian (Aaron Hagos). As his seventh and youngest daughter is nowhere to be found in the performance, the citizens of the deep are thrown into the frenzy as the audience rises to the surface where Ariel (Josslyn Shaw) is found pining for the objects of the human world as treasures with some, albeit misguided help from her friends the boisterous seagull Scuttle (Annette Rodriguez) and the guppy Flounder (Hallie Walker) in the song “Human Stuff.”

In adapting the show for the stage, book writer Doug Wright was given insight into John Musker and Ron Clements early script treatments for The Little Mermaid. Wright opted to use the stage musical as an opportunity to bring back some of these elements such as Ursula (Jonathan Chisolm) being King Triton’s sister that was banished to the far reaches of the ocean. Consulting with her crones, the electric eels Flotsam (Tico Chiriboga) and Jetsam (Luke Surretsky), the sea witch laments her desire for power and to escape her imprisonment in the campy cabaret track “I Want the Good Times Back” a la Kander and Ebb. While I would argue that Ursula in the original The Little Mermaid film was a far more morally gray character, the song “Good Times” gives the octopus queen an unmistakably evil edge as a power-hungry villainess. 

Jonathan Chisolm as Ursula the Sea Witch (photo credit: Ariany Cespedes)

As Ariel dives into her cavern of treasures from the human world, she begins to question why her strict father prevents her from interacting with the land. Written by original lyricist Howard Ashman, the master of the “I Want” song, Ariel’s pining for the world above the waves comes to a roar in “Part of Your World.” In delivering the show’s signature song, Josslyn Shaw’s brilliant soprano is a masterclass in musical theater performance. From the whisper-hush talk-singing, to the massive climax of the song where she proclaims that she’s ready to stand with a soaring belt, just nearly escaping the grotto. Josslyn Shaw’s delivery of the iconic track is a rare performance that compels you to the momentous emotions that the song demands, all with Shaw’s angelic Disney Princess tone. Even the reprise has all the gravitas that could draw one to tears with each word of Ashman’s delivered with gorgeous intensity.   

The storm on the seas tosses Prince Eric’s ship with reckless abandon, as pantomimed by a performer with a scale model of a vessel circling the audience. Prince Eric is brought ashore by Ariel, where he becomes smitten by the sound of the mermaid’s siren song as her luscious singing voice helps revive him. Played by NYC-based actor Henry Thrasher, the performer brings a passionate approach to “Her Voice,” a ballad Thrasher has sung for years, yet still brings an inquisitively fiery desire as the show’s leading man. 

Josslyn Shaw as Ariel and Henry Thrasher as Eric (Photo Courtesy of Area Stage Co.)

While King Triton did not have any songs in the film, the Broadway production added “The World Above (Reprise).” Frank Montoto has been a featured player in ASC’s renditions of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Annie,” but here as Triton, Montoto gets to put on a heavier display of emotions, especially as it is established that the sea king’s disdain for humans originates from his wife’s passing at the hands of humans. Triton assigns Sebastian to dissuade Ariel from ever going near the land. 

As the court’s composer, the crab gathers a “hot crustacean band” in the massive “Under the Sea” sequence. Aaron Hagos’ charming approach to the compulsive servant is delivered with high energy showmanship paralleled only by Hagos’ soaring vocal ability. An absolutely iconic song from the original film utilizing the splashiness of music and dance, the ensemble performers don flute, guitar, violin and accordion in a style reminiscent of director John Doyle, who is known for having actors double as musicians. 

Ariel’s desire to join Prince Eric outweighs Sebastian’s musings on the misery of fish on land, and she resolves to make a deal with Ursula to become human. As the Sea Witch, Jonathan Chisolm leans far more into the Pat Carroll interpretation of the role, inspired by drag queens like Divine and in lowering the key of the song is given a more darker, vicious tone to their delivery. Brechtian and brooding, Ursula decries the “Poor Unfortunate Souls” that have come to her in their hour of need, as Ariel joins them by exchanging her voice for a pair of legs and lungs. 

Choreographer Irma Becker has been a regular collaborator with ASC and in the “Under the Sea” dance scenes, Becker utilizes not only the size of the massive ensemble to make the show feel like a 360-degree experience, but even gets the audience involved with a fun conga line throughout the space. Another commendable dance sequence is the song “Positoovity,” a comedic vaudeville number that is performed so heavily on tap dancing, you almost forget that the original Broadway show was staged with actors in Heelys. From Annette Rodriguez’s expert puppetry to Hallie Walker’s massive tap solo, the song gives its star roles plenty to show off while letting the ensemble bring a grandeur to the show. Movement Directors Luciano Cortés and Lauren Gaspard have also created blocking for the actors that make the “in the round” style adaptable for even the show’s big ballads where actors can be seen performing in slow pirouette, making each seat the house a perfect view. At times, the massive staging of the ensemble is paced in this frenzy of petticoats and capes that it feels like you’re at the center of a whirlwind marathon.

In the costume design by Maria Banda-Rodaz and Sofia Ortega, the base costume for the women ensemble are based around wench skirts that double as mermaid tails while the men are decked out in puffy shirts and leather pants that both evoke a “Pirates of the Caribbean” stylized approach to the time period. With the immense amount of running and choreo, most of the cast are either in ballet flats or a low boot. The featured cast are signified by the instantly recognizable color blocking that is signature of Disney’s best characters, Ariel in bright red hair with a green skirt and lilac top, Prince Eric in a Enjolras-esque red, beige and blue period costume, Sebastian in a red cape of glittery sea debris, and especially Ursula. Adorned in a black ball gown, cornflower blue eyeshadow, sultry red lip, eyebrows arched to the heavens, and a villainous white updo, she and all the other denizens of the sea are decked out from head to toe in seaside couture that is layered with an ingenious level of detail. 

Only days before the show was set to go into rehearsals, ASC got special permission from Disney Theatrical Productions to use the original Broadway edition of The Little Mermaid script that was used from 2007 to its closing in 2009. In 2012, the show was reimagined with changes to the book that were ultimately meant to serve a production in the round and instead of Heelys, being performed on aerial flight rigs by the performers to give a sense of floating. Director Giancarlo Rodaz has neither shoes with wheels or performers floating above the stage, but instead he utilizes a wildly imaginative approach to prop design and performance that feels so much like the innate sense of child’s play. For every limitation of regional theater from budget to space, Rodaz has effectively laughed in the face of these self-imposed restrictions and instead used them as an advantage to create theater that is both innovative and emotionally prescient.

Area Stage Co presenting Disney’s The Little Mermaid is an absolute triumph of creativity and the spirit of imagination that would leave Walt Disney in awe. Every second of this show is a dazzling feast for the senses of absolutely virtuosic vocal performances set in an immersively radiant world of undersea adventure. Playing now at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts’ Carnival Theater Stage until August 27: swim, don’t walk to this intensely genius re-staging of a classic Disney tale. Tickets are available here with several pricing options. 

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