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I needed to see the Spreckels Theatre Company presentation of Disney’s The Little Mermaid twice before I could review it as my experience at the first showing was less than satisfactory – not because of anything being done on stage, but because of the distractingly boorish behavior of an audience member sitting in front of me who was shocked – SHOCKED! – that children would be thoroughly engaged by something clearly directed at them. Therefore, a cautionary note to potential adult audience attendees of this show – if you’re planning to attend a show with the word “Disney” attached to it and you walk through a lobby full of tykes dressed in princess gowns and you sit in a row where the kiddie to adult ratio is six to one, DON’T be surprised when they start bouncing and pointing and laughing and singing and commenting at what’s going on in front of them. It’s for them.
Not that there isn’t plenty for adults to enjoy. Director Gene Abravaya has packed the Spreckels stage with enough color and spectacle for five shows, and its sizable cast (thirty?) has some of the bay area’s most talented singers and actors among it.
Based on the 1837 Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale and the significantly modified 1989 Disney animated film, …Mermaid is the tale of Princess Ariel (Julianne Bretan), daughter of King Triton (Steven Kent Barker) who falls in love with a human prince (Jacob Bronson) and gives up her voice (and perhaps her soul) in a bargain with a villainous sea witch (Mary Gannon Graham) for a chance to fall in love with the Prince. If you know the film, you know the show, and that’s what makes it perfect for the young ones. After thirty or forty viewings of the ol’ VHS or DVD, the kids know the story, and the Spreckels Theatre Company gives ‘em what they want in all its underwater glory.
Which, when you think about it, is somewhat of a theatrical challenge. Abravaya and his team of collaborators (set designers Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen, costume designer Pam Enz, and choreographer Michella Snider) meet those challenges in creative and entertaining ways. Enz has draped the cast in eye-popping colors. Snider has the undersea characters gliding (and dancing) on skates. Abravaya has them surrounded by undersea projections of schools of cartoon fish and the stage is scattered with human seaweed. There’s a lot going on visually – so much that, on occasion, you can miss some things, but if you know the story…
…then you probably know the songs, too. Musical director Tina Lloyd Meals and her nine-piece orchestra nicely serve up the Alan Mencken/Howard Ashman score and the kids didn’t hesitate to join in, most noticeably with Robert Finney as Sebastian the crab and “Under the Sea”. On stage, the vocals are strong in this production. Julieanne Bretan makes for a lovely Ariel, with a charming voice and stage presence. Jacob Bronson continues his string of romantic leads at Spreckels as Prince Eric and continues to impress with his tenor. There’s nice group and ensemble work throughout the show, culminating in a very sweet quartet with Bretan, Bronson, Finney and Barker with “It’s Only” (Ariel’s Lament).
There’s good character work as well, with Fernando Siu the show’s emotional heart as Ariel’s best friend Flounder, whose expressions of unrequited love for Ariel regularly led to an audience response of “Awwwwwwwww.” Ariel’s mermaid sisters (Amy Webber, ScharyPearl Fugitt, Amanda Pedersen, Shawna Eirman, Lyndsey Transue, and Kate Kenyon) are an absolute hoot. Is it possible to be catty and fishy at the same time? Catfishy? The comedic highlight is the arrival of Jeremy Berrick’s Chef Louis. His musical number “Les Poissons” is quite amusing and it’s actually rather surreal watching a guy in a French chef’s costume chasing a guy in a crab costume around the stage.
The curmudgeonly adult critic in me necessitates the acknowledgement that the show does have its flaws. It’s already been noted that some things get lost in all the onstage action. The staging is sometimes confusing (are they on land? at sea? above? below? both?) and the script doesn’t make things easy by having Ariel sing after she loses her voice. The climax is somewhat anti-climactic, in part because I found the usually boisterous Mary Gannon Graham curiously restrained in her portrayal of Ursula (by the set or costume, perhaps?) But I’ll allow the miniscule child-like part of my cold, black critic’s heart to concede that the intended audience for this show – the children – didn’t care!
Nope, not one iota. They were so taken by singing seamen, helium-voiced seahorses, floating jellyfish, dancing/swimming/singing mermaids, a love-lorn fish, tap dancing sea gulls, swerving seaweed, tray-flinging waiters, villainous eels that light up, a hatchet wielding chef, an exasperated crab, a luminous princess and a dashing prince to notice such things and that’s perfectly alright.
Because the show is for them.
With the Spreckels Theatre Company’s production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid you get two experiences for the price of one – the onstage magic that entrances the younger crowd and that crowd’s joyous reaction to what they’re seeing. I mean no slight to all the artists involved to say that as much as I enjoyed their work, a house full of children smiling and dancing and singing and laughing was an equally entertaining experience – at least for me. And lest you think “…Mermaid” is only for the girls, some of the loudest laughter echoing through the Codding Theatre was coming from the male section of the peanut gallery, especially when Sean O’Brien’s Scuttle the Gull flew onstage (literally.)
If you haven’t already done so, consider turning off the DVD player and introducing your young ones to the excitement of a live stage show. It’s a terrific way to spawn the next generation of theatre-goers and maybe even a future performer or two. Note the earlier curtain times and meander with your minnows (or prance with your princesses) over to Spreckels for a delightful afternoon or evening of fairytale fun.
And, please, let the kids be kids.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid
Presented by The Spreckels Theatre Company
through May 22
Thurs/Fri/Sat @ 7pm, Sat/Sun@ 1pm
Spreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Photos by Eric Chazankin