Chicago Theatre Review
Under the Sea
The Little Mermaid – Jedlicka Performing Arts Center
Audiences might want to bring their bathing suits and snorkels when they visit the Jedlicka Performing Arts Center this Spring, because this company’s presenting the full-length version of the 2008 Broadway musical, based upon the popular animated Walt Disney film. Director Dante J. Orfei is taking patrons Under the Sea for two-and-a-half hours of family theatrical magic.
For those unfamiliar with the film, it’s based upon Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale about a pretty young mermaid named Ariel who dreams of the wonders and freedom to be found in the world above the waves. During one of her forbidden excursions to the surface, she rescues a drowning Prince Eric who, during a storm, has been swept from the deck of his ship and into the ocean. Ariel falls in love with the young man. Willing to do anything to be near 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, unable to talk or sing, she must somehow 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 tunes include “Part of Your World,” “Kiss the Girl,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” “Les Poissons” and the Academy Award-winning “Under the Sea,” which are the highlights of the show. However, “She’s in Love,” a catchy new soft-rock number that’s been added to the stage version, is the real showstopper of this production. Prince Eric also gets two beautiful ballads with “Her Voice” and “One Step Closer.” The play is well-staged by director Dante J. Orfei, musically directed with precision by James Robinson-Parran (who also conducts the lush-sounding 12 piece backstage orchestra) and choreographed with spirit by newcomer, Britta Schlicht.
For this musical, Rick Arnold has designed a serviceable and flexible stage set that blends well with Michael A. Kott’s colorful, undulating projections. Together with Orfei’s lighting design, both the land and wavering water worlds are enhanced, transporting audiences from “Fathoms Below,” to aboard the royal schooner and back onto the sun-dappled beach. As with the Broadway production, costumer Matthew Carl has provided heelies for his actors, sneakers with retractable wheels that approximate the smooth, underwater movement of the sea creatures. He’s used a shiny palette of color and texture to dress his characters, although the species of the undersea animals is sometimes unclear. He’s ably assisted by Dianne Sizemore who styles the cast’s perfect, Disney-inspired wigs. Together the entire technical team has created a visual spectacle.
Mr. Orfei has assembled a talented cast for his production. A recent graduate of CCPA at Roosevelt University, Alexandra Gonzalez makes a graceful, childlike Ariel. Sporting a long, crimson wig and displaying a clear voice, Ms. Gonzalez makes a winsome, lovable Little Mermaid. David Gordon-Johnson returns to JPAC as handsome and charismatic as Prince Eric. His strong voice charms both Ariel and the audience. A theatrical force of nature, Michelle Jasso swims back to Jedlicka as the villainous Ursula. Enveloped in one of the show’s most spectacular costume/wig creations, Ms. Jasso undulates about the stage, stirring up trouble for everyone. Her rendition of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is superb, powerful and frightening. She’s wonderfully assisted by Dustin Rothbart and Colton Shied as her oily, eely accomplices, Flotsam and Jetsam. Joel Camden, so fantastic in JPAC’s recent “Miss Saigon,” is a comic treat as Sebastian, Ariel’s crabby, put-upon guardian. He gets two of the production’s best-loved songs, “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.”
Strong, vocal support is provided by Dan Wilson, as Ariel’s strict, but loving father, King Triton; Jim LaPietra is outrageous as the manic Chef Louis; and Justin Stevens is fussy and funny as Grimsby, the prince’s persnickety advisor. Sara Costello makes a terrific, energetic tap-dancing feathered friend named Scuttle, the Seagull. Ariel’s Mersisters, the Daughters of Triton, are humorously and individually portrayed by Brooke Thompson, Gianna Capra Uroni, Laura Martino, Sarah Jean Mergener, Mary Doctor and Sabrina Edwards. And, almost stealing the show, is little Zach Thomas as Ariel’s likable little buddy, Flounder. Providing preteen power and pizzazz, and backed by the Mersisters, young Master Thomas rocks out lovelorn, adolescent angst in the captivating earworm, “She’s in Love.”
Although the stage musical differs slightly from the animated film, this charming production is just as funny, moving and spectacular to both the eye and ear. However, the running time of this full-length production is taxing, particularly for younger audiences, and the additional songs don’t add anything to the story. And, once again, slow scene changes, delayed lighting cues and problems with microphones impair the excellence of this production, breaking up the momentum and beauty of the story. This is a fine family musical that both teaches and entertains, filled with funny, heartwarming characters, lovely songs and creative visuals to enchant audiences of all ages. The best way to beat the early Spring heat this April is to take a plunge Under the Sea at the Jedlicka Performing Arts Center.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 15-30 by JPAC at the Jedlicka Performing Arts Center at Morton College, 3801 S. Central Ave., Cicero, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 708-656-1800 or by going to www.jpactheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.