Chicago Theatre Review
Magnificence Under the Sea
Disney’s The Little Mermaid – Paramount Theatre
In Aurora, stellar, professional musical theatre reigns supreme as the king of entertainment. However, audiences might want to bring their bathing suits or snorkels when they visit the Paramount during this holiday season, because a magnificent, spectacular version of the 2008 Broadway musical, based upon the popular Walt Disney animated film, is taking patrons Under the Sea for a thrilling evening of theatrical magic.
For those unfamiliar with the 1989 film, this popular, critically acclaimed musical movie is based upon Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. It tells about a pretty young mermaid named Ariel who dreams of the beauty, adventure and freedom to be found in the world above the waves. During one of her forbidden excursions to the surface, she finds and ultimately rescues a drowning Prince Eric who, during a violent storm at seas, has been swept into the ocean from the deck of his ship. Ariel 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 fall in love and kiss her within three days time, or she will return to the ocean as sea foam.
The stage musical, written by Doug Wright, features some terrific songs by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman (with additional lyrics by Glenn Slater), the best of the lot adapted from their own film score. Gorgeous tunes 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, one of several songs added to the stage version, is a particular highlight of this production. Prince Eric also gets two stirring, nicely sung ballads with “Her Voice” and “One Step Closer.” All numbers are expertly staged and choreographed with imagination and perfect artistry by director Amber Mak, including some surprising, effortlessly executed aerial work.
In Ms. Mak’s breathtaking production, Jeffrey D. Kmiec offers one of the most colorful and resplendent scenic designs imaginable, whimsically accented with gorgeous bubbling, undulating projections, created by artistic genius Mike Tutaj. Together they take audiences from aboard a majestic, masted schooner, onto a sun-dappled, wave-lapped shore down Under the Sea to Fathoms Below. Notice how Kmiec’s design actually encompasses the entire stage with his abstract seashell motif. Jesse Klug’s imaginative lighting enhances this wavering, watery world, from the depths of the ocean floor all the way up to the sun-drenched coastline and into the Prince’s palace.
Even the look of the characters is different in this production. On Broadway, heelies were worn by most of the actors, to approximate the smooth, underwater movement of the fish and mermaids. Under Ms. Mak’s guidance, her undersea characters move their arms and bodies, as if continually swimming and treading water. Thus, costumer Theresa Ham can forgo the wheels in favor of dressing her actors in lots of flowing, undulating fabrics that move as if driven by the ocean current. For this production, Ms. Ham has outdone herself, employing a palette of shiny, sparkling colors and textures to create the brilliant world of her sea creatures. She’s ably assisted by Katie Cordts’ creative makeup, hair and wig designs, along with Jesse Mooney-Bullock’s stupendous life-size puppets. His Sebastian and the evil Flotsam and Jetsam creations are just a few of his fine creations. The visual spectacle created by these unseen artists is both eye-popping and mind-boggling.
Amber Mak has assembled a truly stellar cast for her production, directed with so much imagination and unlimited vision. New to Chicago, Kari Yancy makes her Paramount debut as a beautifully graceful Ariel. Sporting a long, crimson wig and displaying a crystal clear voice and employing elegantly flowing balletic and aerial movement, Ms. Yancy portrays a wonderfully winsome and lovable Little Mermaid. Handsome, multitalented Devin DeSantis, a familiar face from countless other Chicago area productions (“Hairspray,” “Tommy”), is a charming, charismatic Prince Eric. His strong vocals charm both Ariel and the audience, especially in his heartfelt ballad, “Her Voice.”
Another favorite Chicago actress, Christina Hall (“Always…Patsy Cline,” “Wonderful Town”) is a deliciously evil force of nature as the villainous Ursula. Enveloped in one of the show’s most spectacular costume/wig creations, Ms. Hall undulates around the ocean floor, ably assisted by her ensemble of Inkies, stirring up trouble for everyone. Her rendition of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is powerful and frightening. She’s wonderfully assisted by the slithery Adam Fane and John Adam Keating as her electric eel accomplices, Flotsam and Jetsam. The two actors add to their pernicious presence my manipulating life-size rod puppets, with eyes that shine in the dark. Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, so delightful in recent Chicago productions of “Sister Act” and “In the Heights,” is a joyful, Caribbean crustacean treat as Sebastian, Ariel’s crabby guardian. Clad in red and skillfully operating his clacking puppet doppelganger, he leads the cast in two of the production’s best numbers, “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.” Supported by a sensational ensemble and Tommy Vendafreddo’s talented, full orchestral accompaniment, he nearly stops the show.
Strong, able support is provided by Evan Tyrone Martin (“Dreamgirls,” “The Color Purple”), as Ariel’s strict, but loving father, King Triton. George Keating is very funny and tenacious as the prince’s friend and advisor, Grimsby, as well as the hilariously manic Chef Louis. Michael Ehlers, that comic, lithe and limber dancing talent, who’s been featured on area stages as well as Broadway, is terrific as Ariel’s dorky, tap-dancing friend, Scuttle the Seagull. Ariel’s Mersisters, the “Daughters of Triton,” are humorously and individually portrayed by Ciera Dawn, Megan E. Farley, Allyson Graves,Mallory Maedke, Zoe Nadal and Haley Jane Schafer. And almost stealing the show is young Ricky Falbo (alternating the role with Murphy Byrne), as Ariel’s likable little buddy and aquatic ally Flounder. Backed by the Mersisters, Master Falbo rocks out his preteen, lovelorn angst in the captivating, “She’s in Love.”
Although the stage musical differs ever so slightly from the animated feature film, this charming, captivating production is funny, exciting, quite unexpectedly moving and a true spectacle for the eye and ear. Directed and choreographed by Amber Mak, in what may be her finest production to date, with solid musical direction by the talented Tom Vendafreddo, and supported by a superlative team of artists, both on- and off-stage, this show stands out as one of Paramount’s finest, most memorable in a long line of musicals. It’s a family show that will both teach and entertain, filled with funny, heartwarming characters, gorgeous music and stunning special effects guaranteed to enchant audiences of all ages. A superlative holiday treat for everyone lies in taking the plunge Under the Sea in Aurora.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented November 27-January 15 by Paramount Theatre, 23 East Galena Blvd., Aurora, IL.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 630-896-6666 or by going to www.paramountaurora.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.