REVIEW: Disney’s The Little Mermaid at Dr. Phillips Center

I often find myself doing things that I might not have necessarily pursued if not for being invited to review them for this site. Much to my surprise, this had led to me being introduced to many new things that I have thoroughly enjoyed, and new passions that I’ve enthusiastically embraced. Over the last two years, for example, I have come to love theater – especially when presented at Dr. Phillips Center. Of all the shows I’ve enjoyed there, The Little Mermaid was easily one of my most anticipated. Unfortunately, I have to admit that I left disappointed and underwhelmed. 

Not everything that’s touched by the magic of Disney comes out smelling like a rose. This adaptation ultimately smelled more like seaweed. I suppose it has a lot to do with expectation – the expectation of a Disney-bolstered production of Broadway caliber. I confess that I sometimes get a wee bit critical over variations in adaptations from book to screen or screen to stage, etc., but I really didn’t come into this performance with that chip on my shoulder. I’ve seen this story unfold on stage at varied levels, and I never saw a version that failed to do acceptably by its means and budget… until now.

In fairness, it wasn’t all bad; and the aspects that were good were actually great! Melvin Abston and Jennifer Allen gave standout performances as Sebastian the Crab and Ursula the Sea Witch, respectively. Allen specifically earned kudos for gracefully, seamlessly handling a rough audio technical issue that struck just as her big “Poor Unfortunate Souls” moment was coming into play. Both Allen and Abston were delightful in their roles and very strong in their musical contributions, making every scene they appeared in an undeniable highlight. Coincidentally, they also had the most striking costumes – along with Ursula’s evil eel minions, Flotsam and Jetsam.

Abston’s highlights were plenty. Sebastian’s musical stylings are an established anchor of the original Disney film, so those are some big claws to fill… but Abston does it with ease. Vocally, he was on point, and his physical performance was absolutely endearing. Sebastian’s perilous showdown with the chef came to brilliant life in a scene that evoked purely cartoonish hilarity. He was a scene-stealer, quite naturally. 

Sets were rather lackluster, but the production proved that lighting effects can have a respectable impact on the transformation of scenes. Costuming left a bit to be desired. Choreography was a toss-up. While dancing was rather minimal, general movement was equivalent to a hyperactive fit. It was dizzying and distracting to find every water-based character continuously gyrating in a semi-erotic, snake-like fashion throughout their entire performance. It was just very odd and unnecessary. The upswing arrived in the form of characters entering and exiting scenes as harnesses aided them in elegant ascents and descents. 

Much like Disney took a number of significant liberties adapting the original Hans Christian Andersen story for the animated feature film, this stage performance diverged yet again. Personally, I was less than jazzed with the changes. Though certain story elements were not entirely original, it was painfully apparent that they were dropped from previous versions simply because they didn’t quite fit properly. They should have stayed absent. The new songs were simply not up to standard either. Cheesy, simplistic, rushed, and forgettable is the best summary for the overwhelming number of new tunes lumped into this show. One exception, “If Only” – a quartet performed by Ariel, Eric, Sebastian, and King Triton – was an alluring song that gave worthy prominence to four strong voices. Until this point (near the final scene), I felt that Ariel’s presence had been remarkably understated. Her scenes were generally overshadowed by the strength of Sebastian and Ursula, the chaos of discord surrounding multiple characters’ exaggerated gyrations, Scuttle’s overwhelming slews of painful schtick, or the awkwardly over-sexualized Flounder who served no apparent purpose other than being a misplaced, inappropriately fixated tool for innuendo. 

To be blunt… The Little Mermaid was just a mess, and so much less dazzling than it could have been. For one of Disney’s great, modern animated giants, I expected so much better. As much as a show you hold little true expectations for can surprise you with its merit, a performance you hold high hopes for can ultimately just let you down.

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