Chicago Theatre Review
Under the Sea
The Little Mermaid – Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
Audiences might want to bring their bathing suits or snorkels when they visit Navy Pier this summer, because a new, shortened, one-act version of the 2008 Broadway musical, based upon the popular Walt Disney animated film, is taking patrons Under the Sea for an hour-and-a-half of theatrical magic. For those unfamiliar with the film, it’s a musical based upon Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale about a pretty young mermaid named Ariel who dreams of the beauty and freedom to be found in the world above the waves. During one of her forbidden excursions to the surface, she finds and rescues a drowning Prince Eric who, during a storm, has been swept into the ocean from the deck of his ship. Ariel, naturally, falls in love with the young man. Willing to do anything to be with him, the Little Mermaid defies her father, King Triton, and trades her beautiful voice to Ursula, the Sea Witch, in exchange for legs. The one stipulation is that, without the ability to talk or sing, she must inspire the handsome, young prince to kiss her within three days, or she will return to the ocean as sea foam.
The stage musical, written by Doug Wright, features terrific songs by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman (with additional lyrics by Glenn Slater), adapted from their own film score. Familiar songs like “Part of Your World,” “Kiss the Girl,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” “Les Poissons” and the Academy Award-winning “Under the Sea”are the show’s highlights. “She’s in Love,” a catchy soft-rock number, that’s been added to the stage version, is one of the highlights of this production. Prince Eric also gets two nicely sung ballads with “Her Voice” and “One Step Closer.” All numbers are expertly staged and choreographed with variety and artistry by Director Rachel Rockwell, including some surprising, effortlessly executed aerial work.
In CST’s shortened version of this Broadway musical, Scott Davis’ beautiful scenic design, accented with gorgeously undulating projections created by Shawn Sagady, takes audiences from “Fathoms Below,” aboard a schooner and onto the wave-lapped beach. Notice how Davis’ design extends all the way up to the ceiling of the theatre. Yael Lubetzky’s lighting enhances this wavering watery world, from the depths of the ocean floor all the way up to the sun-drenched coastline. While in the Broadway production heelies were worn by most of the actors, to approximate the smooth, underwater movement of the fish and mermaids, costumer Theresa Ham saves that special means of locomotion for little Flounder, Ariel’s young aquatic ally. For this production, Ms. Ham has outdone herself, employing a shiny palette of colors and textures to create the brilliant world of her sea creatures. She’s ably assisted by Melissa Veal’s creative makeup and wig designs, along with Chelsea M. Warren’s life-size puppets. The visual spectacle by these technical artists is both eye-popping and mind-boggling.
Rachel Rockwell has assembled a stellar cast for her production, directed with imagination and vision. New to Chicago, Rachel Eskenazi-Gold makes a beautifully graceful Ariel. Sporting a long, crimson wig and displaying a crystal clear voice and elegantly flowing balletic movement, Ms. Gold becomes a winsome, lovable Little Mermaid. Brandon Springman, a familiar face from countless other Chicago area productions, is handsome and charismatic as Prince Eric. His strong voice charms both Ariel and the audience. A theatrical force of nature, Rebecca Finnegan returns to CST as the villainous Ursula. Enveloped in one of the show’s most spectacular costume/wig creations, Ms. Finnegan undulates about the ocean floor, stirring up trouble for everyone. Her rendition of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is superb, powerful and frightening. She’s wonderfully assisted by Sean Blake and Adam Fane as her oily, eely accomplices, Flotsam and Jetsam. Joseph Anthony Byrd, so hilarious as Jacob in Marriott’s recent “La Cage Aux Folles,” is a treat as Sebasian, Ariel’s crabby guardian. He gets two of the production’s best songs, “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.” Supported by a sensational ensemble and Valerie Maze’s talented orchestral accompaniment, he nearly stops the show.
Strong, able support is provided by Matthew R. Jones, both as Ariel’s strict, but loving father, King Triton, as well as the manic Chef Louis. Mark David Kaplan is funny and stalwart as the prince’s friend and advisor, Grimsby. Matt Crowle, that rubber-jointed comic/dancing genius, who’s been featured on Broadway and area stages, is simply terrific as dorky Scuttle, the Seagull. Ariel’s Mersisters, the “Daughters of Triton,” are humorously and individually portrayed by Missy Aguilar, Allyson Graves, Hanah Rose Nardone and Erica Stephan. And almost stealing the show is little Matthew Uzarraga, as Ariel’s likable little buddy, Flounder. Bringing the power and pizzazz he displayed recently in Marriott’s “The King and I,” and Drury Lane’s “Les Miserables,” Matthew has definitely proven he’s a star. Backed by the Mersisters, Mr. Uzarraga rocks out his preteen, lovelorn angst in the captivating, “She’s in Love.”
Although the stage musical differs slightly from the animated feature film, this charming production is funny, moving and a spectacle for the eye and ear. Directed and Choreographed by Rachel Rockwell, with solid Musical Direction by the talented Roberta Duchak and supported by a superlative team of artists, both on- and off-stage, this show stands out as one of CST’s best-executed, most beloved, in a long line of musicals for young audiences. It’s a family musical that will both teach and entertain, filled with funny, heartwarming characters, gorgeous music and stunning special effects guaranteed to enchant audiences of all ages. The best way to beat the summer heat is to take a plunge “Under the Sea” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented July 3-August 16 by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on their Courtyard Stage on Navy Pier, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 312-595-5600 or by going to www.chicagoshakes.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.