"The Little Mermaid" wasn't a big hit on Broadway, despite a whole show packed with great songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, one of the greatest songwriting teams in American musicals theater history.
The current production of the show, which opened Thursday at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, makes the most of those songs. The lead performers -- including Savannah Sinclair as Ariel, Biran Chunn as Sebastian, Christina Capehart as Ursula and Alex Zickafoose as Prince Eric -- all wield wonderful voices. The solo performers in smaller roles, especially Bradley Keville as Chef Louis (who gets to sing one of Ashman's cleverest lyrics in "Les Poissons") all provide hilarious moments, and the ensemble work, most notable that of the "Mersisters" -- Sara Sutton, Miranda Wolf, Amanda Lade, Emma Katz, Brittney Klepper and Samantha Crawford -- is delightful.
Michael Pasquini's lighting design is gorgeous and sets the underwater scene and mood, and the endless parade of odd and wonderful costumes by Becky Evans Mever never stops impressing.
Still, you can see why Broadway audiences didn't take to "The Little Mermaid" the way they did to such shows as "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King" that turned Disney movies into stage mega-hits.
Much of the action takes place underwater, and most of the characters are fish, crustaceans and, of course, mermaids. In the original Broadway show, the actors simulated undersea motion by using roller skates. (Actually "heelies," which are shoes with wheels in the heels.) One of the knocks against the show was that effect didn't work. The Manatee Players production uses heelies for much of the action, and truly, the ef
fect doesn't work. You always feel like you're watching human beings roller skating, not watching marine animals float. But it's not much more than a mild annoyance.
Besides, the underwater effect is enhanced here by actors suspended from above and gliding through the air. It looks really, really cool and it looks more like they're really underwater. You wish they'd do it more, but it can't be easy for the actors.
The story, of course, is based on a Hans Christian Anderson story. It has to do with a mermaid with a beautiful singing voice who falls in love with a human. She strikes a deal with her evil Aunt Ursula for a chance to live above water long enough to try to snag her man. But she has to give Ursula her voice in exchange, which makes snagging her man much trickier.
Director Rick Kerby has assembled a huge and wonderful cast, with no weak links despite the physical and vocal difficulty of the show.
The score includes some of the best songs of Menken's career, and some of Ashman's most charming lyrics, and they're all performed delightfully.
The use of recorded music instead of a live orchestra is minor disappointment made necessary by the expense of the show. (The recorded music does sound fantastic, which makes it pretty easy to accept.)
And, now that we're a few shows into the new season at Stone Hall, it's worth noting that the muddy sound that had marred some previous performances seems to be gone for good. Improvements to the theater during the off-season have apparently fixed the problems, and every word of "The Little Mermaid" is clear.
Kerby and his cast and crew have done a phenomenal job bringing a challenging show to life. Adults will laugh, kids will be awe-struck and everyone will be singing Menken's songs for days after.
Details: Through Dec. 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.