Saturday, March 8, 2014

"The Little Mermaid" at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

The Little Mermaid was the first of the new Disney movies, and my favorite. I was a teenager when the movie came out in 1989, and "Part of Your World" is the quintessential teenage girl anthem (before my theme song was "I Don't Do Sadness" or "I'm Not That Girl," it was "Part of Your World"). Every kid I babysat at the time had the VCR tape (yes, VCR), so I've probably seen the movie hundreds of times. The soundtrack was the first cassette tape (yes, cassette tape) I ever owned, and I listened to it constantly, and even played "Under the Sea" in band because my tuba-playing band director loved the calypso rhythm and the bass parts ("guess who's going to be on the plate"). Even though I haven't seen the movie or listened to the music in many years, it all came right back to me while watching Chanhassen's production of the stage version of the movie. Now, as you might know if you read this blog with any regularity, I'm not crazy about the trend of turning every Disney movie (and every movie, for that matter) into a musical; I think it's an easy and risk-free way for Broadway producers to recoup their investment, and not necessarily about making art. Whether or not The Little Mermaid should have been made into a stage musical can be debated (the Broadway production ran for less than two years and received mixed reviews), but since it was, there's no place I'd rather see it than at the Chanhassen with a local cast that is perfection. They bring the movie and the wonderful songs to life with the usual Chanhassen flair, fun, and color.

The stage musical The Little Mermaid is based on the Disney movie, which is based on the Hans Christian Anderson story about a mermaid who falls in love with a human Prince and exchanges her voice for a chance to be human. In the Disney version, Ariel is a precocious teenager who doesn't feel at home under the sea with her father King Triton and six sisters. She longs to be part of the human world, and collects trinkets and visits the shore against her father's wishes. After rescuing Prince Eric from a shipwreck, she makes the fateful deal with her aunt Ursula, the evil sea witch, and must charm the Prince and get him to kiss her within three days, or she's doomed to an underwater hell. Unlike the original story, in this Disney version Ariel banishes the sea witch, gets her Prince, and lives happily ever after. A typical Disney fairy tale story, but with the following wonderful features:
  • Caroline Innerbichler is so perfect for the role of Ariel. When you're a musical theater actress with long curly red hair and a lean torso, you're destined to play this role. Fortunately Caroline has the chops to back up the looks, not just a siren-like voice, but the spunk and awkward grace of this fish-turned-woman. The way that she tentatively takes her first steps on her new legs is really well done, and once she learns to walk, she runs and dances across the stage with ease. Caroline is also able to convey everything about the character while not speaking for most of the second act, although she does sing a few songs to show us what's going on in Ariel's head and heart.
"Kiss the Girl!" Caroline Innerbichler and Tyler Michaels
(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • Tyler Michaels never fails to impress in any role, large or small. On the heels of a brilliant (and perhaps, career-making) turn as the Emcee in Cabaret, he does a 180 to play a wholesome Disney prince, and once again transforms into the character. He's so charming as this prince fighting against his role, and even gets to throw in some of his aerial (no pun intended) tricks as he hangs upside down from a rope when Prince Eric falls off the ship. Rest assured that was put in specifically to play to Tyler's talent, anyone else plays this role and they'd do the scene differently (which makes me wonder what they'll do when he leaves the role to make his Guthrie debut as Freddy in My Fair Lady this summer, perhaps his replacement is already studying the art of aerial work).
  • I am convinced there is not a better actress in Minnesota to portray Ursula than Kersten Rodau. Her deep, rich, and powerfully strong voice is perfectly suited to the temperament of the sea witch and the song "Poor Unfortunate Souls," and she's proven she can do broad comedy to great effect (see also Xanadu and Urinetown). My one disappointment is that my favorite line from the movie, uttered by Ursula, appears to have been cut: "Life's full of tough choices, isn't it?" dripping with sarcasm. (Kersten - can you please just ad lib that sometime?)
"Poor Unfortunate Souls!"
Michael Gruber, Caroline Innerbichler, Kersten Rodau, and Tony Vierling
(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)
  • As usual, Jay Albright is an absolute scene stealer as the know-it-all sea gull Scuttle. The slow and practiced bird walk to exit the stage every single time and the way he mangles words is hilarious. Anytime he's onstage, it's impossible to notice anything else.
  • Other perfectly cast supporting characters include Derek Prestly as the adorably sweet Flounder, the fish with an unrequited love for Ariel; a regal Keith Rice as King Triton, with his big beautiful booming voice; Michael Gruber and Tony Vierling as Ursula's deliciously evil and electric sidekicks; and Andre Shoals as Sebastian the comic relief crab (although the role was played as a bit too much of a fool for my taste, with the "uh oh" catch phrase verging into bad sitcom territory).
  • Honorable mention to the six talented women playing Ariel's sisters (Ann Michels, Julianne Mundale, Emily Madigan, Emily King, Maura White, and Laura Rudolph), small roles that they each make the most of, swishing their tails with attitude. And they double as Eric's hilariously horribly voiced suitors in the Bachelor-like competition for his hand.
  • About ten new songs were written for the stage musical by original score composer Alen Menken, with varying degrees of success. My favorites are "Positoovity," mostly because it gives Jay Albright a great opportunity to do his shtick; "Her Voice" because it gives Tyler more to do (when I heard he was playing the role I was concerned because I couldn't remember Eric singing much, if at all, in the movie, but rest assured he sings plenty here), and the lovely Ariel/Eric/Sebastian/Triton quartet "If Only." Some other numbers, including the hokey dancing song "One Step Closer," are forgettable. It's a little like going to see your favorite band, and you want to hear all their hits, but interspersed with the hits they play a bunch of new songs you've never heard, and you just want them to get back to the hits. I mostly just sat through the new songs waiting to hear the likes of "Kiss the Girl" and "Under the Sea" and "Poor Unfortunate Souls."
  • The underwater world is presented quite successfully, and the costumes (by Rich Hamson) are superb. The mermaid effect is created with the tail sticking out behind the actress, over flowy light blue pants which blend into the pale blue set. They walk with tiny quick steps to skim across the stage; if you squint your eyes you can almost see them floating. Sebastion is in a full orangey-red crab costume, and octopus Ursula's darkly gorgeous dress ends in eight tentacles, two of which are connected to her hands and in constant motion. Birds, eels, fish - all fantastical and fun.
  • Two highlights of the show are the ensemble numbers "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl," with the cast adorned in crazy aquatic costumes wandering through the audience - dolphins, sea otters, starfish, seahorses, and the most colorful fish I've ever seen. In a show that's sure to draw a lot of children, it's a nice touch to have the cast in the audience so much, bringing the colorful underwater world a little closer.
  • I view the story a little differently as an adult than I did as a teenager, but I'm not going to bring you down with the misogynist symbolism of a woman giving up her voice to win a man, or how frustrating I find the "fairy tale" ending that implies a woman's only goal is to get married. That's Disney for you, and this is Disney's The Little Mermaid.
The Little Mermaid is playing through August at the Chanhassen, so you have plenty of time to see it, with or without kids. But I do recommend you catch it before Tyler Michaels leaves the show, probably in May sometime. It's a colorful, fun, light, happy show with great music, familiar to those of us who grew up with the movie, performed by an energetic and talented cast. Six months is a long time to do the same show night after night, but if I know the Chanhassen, they'll continue to find fun and playful moments every night to keep it fresh.

"We got no troubles, life is the bubbles, under the sea!"
(photo by Heidi Bohnenkamp)