"The Little Mermaid" musical has an odd history. The 1989 Disney movie musical was a huge hit, and won Oscars for Best Song ("Under the Sea") and Best Score.
The 2009 Broadway version, was a disappointment, running for fewer than 700 performances, despite a lot of added Alan Menken songs. The show's first national tour was scheduled for 2010 but still hasn't happened. The latest word is that it's set to begin next year.
But despite a lackluster Broadway reception, "The Little Mermaid" found popular and critical success in regional productions around the world after a significant re-write.
It's that re-written version, which has become the one that Disney officially licences, that Manatee Players will stage for a three-week run starting Thursday at the Manatee Performing Arts Center.
"They tightened up the story a bit," director Rick Kerby said of the new version. "There are a lot of technical issues, and they did not make them any easier. They make it harder, in fact."
The central technical issue is that the action takes place largely underwater. That's not an easy environment to simulate on stage. But it's more complicated than that.
"It comes at you from all directions" Kerby said. "It goes from under the sea to over the sea to outside and inside and on the beach."
That makes for a lot of costume changes, set changes and lighting changes. The tightened script of the rewritten version means all of that has to be done more rapidly.
"It's been a challenge," Kerby said. "But we have such a great technical team, and we have this facility."
One of the challenges is that the show requires "flying." The actors simulate swimming through the water by gliding around the stage on harnesses, suspended from above the stage by wires. Manatee Players are no strangers to flying. They've used the effect before, in such shows as "Peter Pan." For this show, the company has purchased the equipment and machinery the effects require. Until now, it's always been rented, which costs a huge amount of money.
Probably no other theater or theater company in the region owns that kind of equipment, Kerby said.
The original Broadway production did not use flying effects. Instead, the under-the-sea characters wore "heelies," shoes with wheels in the heels, to glide around the stage.
People who attended Manatee Players Crystal Gala in October got a small taste of the show when Savannah Sincliair, who plays Ariel, the title character, performed one of her songs from the show.
"It's probably one of the most technically difficult shows there is," she said. She had to sing while suspended above the stage, with a harness strapped tight around her ribs.
But still, I'm absolutely loving doing this," she said. "It's certainly a story everyone knows. I'm trying to get as close to the character in the movie as possible."
Kerby, who is the producing artistic director of Manatee Players, said he wasn't deterred by the show's challenges. In fact, he said, the challenge is partly what led him to take on the project.
But mostly, he said, it was the classic story, and the songs by composer Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman that led him to schedule the show for the holiday season. "It's a good fit for me in this spot," he said. "It's a great family show that's not just another 'Nutcracker'."
Details: Dec. 3-20, Stone Hall at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave. W., Bradenton. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $27-$37. Information: 941-748-5875, manateeperformingartscenter.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.