The Little Mermaid at Toby’s Dinner Theatre

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Watch and you’ll see— you too can be— part of their world! If you book your tickets quickly, that is, you too can be a part of the irresistible holiday magic happening at Toby’s Dinner Theatre this Christmas. Presenting Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Directed and Choreographed by Mark Minnick with Musical Direction by Ross Scott Rawlings, this epic adventure will bring you under the sea and into the fully animated world of Disney’s cherished coming-of-age tale about a little mermaid and her dreams to be part of the human world. Radiant, resplendent, and full of sprightly cheer, The Little Mermaid at Toby’s Dinner Theatre is the perfect family gathering for this year’s holiday outings.

The cast of Disney's The Little Mermaid at Toby's Dinner TheatreJeri Tidwell Photography
The cast of Disney’s The Little Mermaid at Toby’s Dinner Theatre

Real Disney magic is crackling through the production; a more immersive fantasy experience cannot be hoped for this Christmas than all of the wonders and treasures you’ll find under the sea at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. It is an indescribable feeling to feel the joy bubbling among the cast amid this stellar production, alighting all across the audience for that happy, uplifting experience during the chilly December holiday season. Director Mark Minnick runs an impressively tight ship, pulling all of the special effects of the production together to engage audience imaginations and craft simplistic, beautiful theatre. Never has a more cleanly executed series of effects and technical moves been applied to a production at Toby’s to make the professional caliber of theatrical magic, with classic audience imagination engaged the whole way, than is happening here with The Little Mermaid under Minnick’s marvelous vision. 

Resident Scenic and Lighting Designer David A. Hopkins, working in tandem with house Sound Designer Mark Smedley, has fabricated a fantasy world that fits Toby’s intimate in-the-round staging like a fine, satin glove. Hopkins’ intense knowledge of how to successfully place scenery in the space enhances the overall production value, making great use of the elevated platforms throughout the performance. His ship, with winch-drop rigging, is perfect for Prince Eric and combined with Mark Smedley’s stunning sound effects, Hopkins’ lighting effects during the moment of the storm makes utterly marvelous staging magic as the boat breaks apart in the tumultuous upheaval of crewman and silken-banner waves. Coral enclosures are lowered from above and slid in across the floor to further the imaginative illusion of being under the sea; each scene skillfully lit with turquoise, teal, and aqua hues to delineate King Triton’s court from Ariel’s Grotto, while saturated purples and reds are thrown into the mixture whenever the scene shifts to the Sea Witch’s Lair.

The way Hopkins masters his magic with the set pieces, elevates the production to a higher caliber of professionalism. Under-lighting Ursula’s magical cauldron and timing smoke effects over particular set pieces all formulate the illusion of the underwater world of magic. Properties Mistress Amy Kaplan has outdone herself, working alongside Hopkins to complete the magical wonderment that accompanies the show. Some of her most dazzling work can be witnessed in the iconic number, “Under the Sea” where twinkling jellyfish and a a fluttery sting ray grace the scene. The glowing swans amid the reeds (cleverly mounted atop the heads of actors in a fashion similar to that used in Disney’s The Lion King) create a soft and romantic ambiance during “Kiss the Girl”, sending a dreamy glow all through the stage.

Abby Middleton (center left) as Ariel and Jeffrey Shankle (center right) as Scuttle and The Gulls in The Little MermaidJeri Tidwell Photography
Abby Middleton (center left) as Ariel and Jeffrey Shankle (center right) as Scuttle and The Gulls in The Little Mermaid

Binding all of the magical design elements together is Director and Choreographer Mark Minnick’s keen eye, seasoned craftsmanship, and overall dedication to a crisp, clean production. The marvels of Minnick’s magic are plentiful all throughout the production. Everything from the impeccable execution of Ariel’s transitions (from fins to legs and back again, all done tastefully with true stage illusion in place) to the way the mersisters move all through the space whenever they’re on stage. Minnick’s choreographic skills are put to task in this production, with the glorious and larger-than-life Mer-Tails (compliments of A.T. Jones & Sons) attached to each Mersister and Ariel. This is a challenge to which Minnick rises, and soars through with vibrant enthusiasm. “She’s In Love” features tremendous amounts of swirls and twirls, all of which highlight the Mer-Tails while other numbers, like “The Storm” feature the terrifying and yet beautiful wave-ribbon dancers, with their sea-dipped ombre silks, dance-attacking Prince Eric as he drowns. The dazzling gem in Minnick’s choreographic crown is the intensely engaging and all around fun movements featured in “Under the Sea”, which is arguably the most energetic and fantastically fun number in the production.

Musical Director Ross Scott Rawlings brings a myriad of sounds together in this production, creating glorious harmonies, rich and robust accompaniments all throughout, and ultimately crafting a musical of aural beauty. Skillfully knowing how to utilize the talent in the ensemble, Rawlings features extraordinary voices— like that of AJ Whittenberger, crying out “Hoist the main sail” during one of the interstitial moments on the ship— all throughout, showing that every player in the performance is of leading quality. The orchestral swells from the beginning of the overture through to the show’s conclusion are sublime and perfectly balanced against the singers in the performance as well. (Orchestra led by Greg Knauf at this production.)

Jacob Hale (center) as Flounder with The Mersisters: (from bottom left moving clockwise) Louisa Tringali as Allana, Maggie Dransfield as Andrina, Elizabeth Rayca as Aquata, MaryKate Brouillet as Atina, Rachel Kemp as Arista, and Coby Kay Callahan as Adella. Jeri Tidwell Photography
Jacob Hale (center) as Flounder with The Mersisters: (from bottom left moving clockwise) Louisa Tringali as Allana, Maggie Dransfield as Andrina, Elizabeth Rayca as Aquata, MaryKate Brouillet as Atina, Rachel Kemp as Arista, and Coby Kay Callahan as Adella.

The aforementioned ensemble spreads and shares the joy of The Little Mermaid with every step the swim and float all throughout the production. The six Mersisters are some of the fiercest among the bunch as they triple and quadruple up as not only Mersisters, but land-bound Princesses, chamber maids, seagulls, dancing fish, and much, more. Featuring (at this performance) Haley Wells, Maggie Dransfield, Rachel Kemp, MaryKate Brouillet, Coby Kay Callahan, and Louisa Tringali (as Aquata, Andrina, Arista, Atina, Adella, and Allana respectively), this sensational circle of six work magic both vocally and physically to breathe breathtaking life into each of their roles. “She’s In Love”, a song which features the aforementioned six as well as a precious solo from Flounder (played with vibrant verve by Jacob Hale), really puts their voices on shining display. Extra special nods of praise go to Callahan, Dransfield, and Tringali for their performances during “The Contest” where Callahan creates laughable wonders with her ‘perfect pitch’, Dransfield all but shakes the scenery down with her vibrato, and Tringali puts Queen of the Night to bed with her momentary burst of coloratura singing. The six mersisters work exceptionally well together and the harmonies they create during “She’s In Love” are delightful in addition to their catty personalities, as they bicker the way sisters so often do, being spot on.

Taylor Witt (left) as Flotsam with Lynn Sharp Spears (center) as Ursula and Joey Ellinghaus (right) as JetsamJeri Tidwell Photography
Taylor Witt (left) as Flotsam with Lynn Sharp Spears (center) as Ursula and Joey Ellinghaus (right) as Jetsam

For slippery slick movement, all eyes are on Flotsam (Taylor Witt) and Jetsam (Joey Ellinghaus.) The flim-flam, riff-raff, slithering sidekicks to the almighty Sea Witch, Ursula, these two are quite the pair on their rollerblades. Their movements are hypnotic, especially when they skate arm-linked in tandem around the space, performing little tricks as they go. Both Witt and Ellinghaus present affected voices to make these electric eel characters that much more enigmatic, and all together unsettling. Their duet rendition of “Sweet Child” is as unctuous as it is hypnotic, ensnaring Ariel and the audience into their eerie little melody.

David Bosley-Reynolds (left) as Chef Louis and DeCarlo Raspberry (right) as SebastianJeri Tidwell Photography
David Bosley-Reynolds (left) as Chef Louis and DeCarlo Raspberry (right) as Sebastian

Show-stealing shenanigans are something to be coveted in this production, and it’s a hands-down throw-down showdown between Chef Louis (David Bosley-Reynolds) and Sebastian (DeCarlo Raspberry.) While the pair do actually engage in a number together, with exceptional pacing and chaotic choreography provided by Mark Minnick, it’s Bosley-Reynolds melodramatic approach to the character that has audience members rolling in the aisles with laughter. Prepared with the classic technique of showy flamboyance, Bosley-Reynolds busts out of his “Les Poissons” number with such vigor it’s a wonder the scene doesn’t erupt into actual flames. Singing with a highly affected and outrageous French accent, his vocals are perfectly suited for the number, and his facial expressions in this scene are so hilarious, you’ll find yourself laughing until you cry.

DeCarlo Raspberry as SebastianJeri Tidwell Photography
DeCarlo Raspberry as Sebastian

DeCarlo Raspberry, who has mastered the art of the jittering legs and semi-scuttle walk of a nervous crab strung out on the edge, brings an undeniable livelihood to Sebastian, the court composing crab who is ready to break out of his shell. With a flavorful Jamaican accent, Raspberry is all the rage when it comes to his own facial expressions, especially when he’s being blasted at by King Triton. With vocal excellence, he eases his way into “Kiss the Girl” and finds a beautiful balance as one fourth of the quartet featured in “If Only.” Cheeky comments and hilarious moments aside, Raspberry is one hot crab when he slams his way through the big show-stealing number, “Under the Sea.” When they say, “that’s why it’s hotter under the water…” it’s because of Raspberry blowing up the number with intense stage heat, honest and enthusiastic energy, and a whole boatload of musical talent. There’s no stopping that crab, even if he can’t always keep track of Ariel.

David James (left) as Grimsby and Justin Calhoun (right) as Prince EricJeri Tidwell Photography
David James (left) as Grimsby and Justin Calhoun (right) as Prince Eric

Comic companions, one wild and one mild, Jeffrey Shankle and David James takes to the production in the roles of Scuttle the hysterical seagull and Grimsby the guardian, respectively. The pair even share a moment that’s to die for— when Grimsby’s attempting to chase Scuttle away from the recently drowned Prince Eric. That little moment is hilarious and too silly for words. While James plays the calmer character figure, he is not without his quirkier moments, like when he’s about to heave-ho or some of the little exchanges he has with Eric when trying to set things to rights.

Abby Middleton (left) as Ariel with Jeffrey Shankle (center) as Scuttle and Jacob Hale (right) as FlounderJeri Tidwell Photography
Abby Middleton (left) as Ariel with Jeffrey Shankle (center) as Scuttle and Jacob Hale (right) as Flounder

Shankle, as a wing-flapping, tush-waggling, shenanigan-causing Seagull, is just too much not to love as the outspoken, and completely over-the-top winged companion of the little mermaid. He knows all the human stuff and has exemplary delivery of all the mixed-up nonsense vocabulary words that accompany the character refined to perfection. With that nasally vocal affectation that sounds identical to a Jersey shorebird squawking at the top of its tiny lungs, Shankle razzles and dazzles the audience with all of his nonsense, really bringing it home during his big solo feature “Positoovity.” You won’t find a funnier— looking, sounding, or acting— bird in all this enchanted land; he is definitely one to watch, especially during the background moments of “Kiss the Girl” where he subtly finds moments of humor that are well worth watching without detracting from the overall serenity of the scene. 

Russell Sunday as King TritonJeri Tidwell Photography
Russell Sunday as King Triton

With a voice as deep as the fathoms below themselves, Russell Sunday makes for an exceptionally bold King Triton. There is just something inexplicably haunting about his voice, both fiercely paternal and commanding, yet delicately invested with sound emotion. When he strides, there is undeniable purpose in every sweeping step. Sunday bellows with the best of them, especially when in fits of furious temper both at daughter Ariel and at the nasty Sea Witch, Ursula. The first teasing sample of Sunday’s voice arrives early in the production, “If Only (Triton’s Lament)” and it’s heartbreaking to hear the emotional gravity that he imbues to the number. Featured as the bari-bass quarter of the quartet “If Only” in the second act, Sunday’s voice is serenity incarnate, with a haunting through-line that stirs at the soul when he sings.

Abby Middleton as ArielJeri Tidwell Photography
Abby Middleton as Ariel

Look at that girl, isn’t she neat? Wouldn’t you think her performance’s so sweet? Wouldn’t you think she’s the girl— that girl they call Ariel. Played as a classic textbook Disney animated princess, Abby Middleton makes for a fine Ariel, singing on pitch for all of her featured numbers. With wide-eyes and eager expressions, we all see a replica of Disney’s 1989 animated feature right before our eyes. When she takes to dancing with Prince Eric (Justin Calhoun) there is an undeniably sweet chemistry shared between the two of them. Watch her eyes closely all throughout “Beyond My Wildest Dreams” as she is alight with true wonder for the entirety of this number.

Justin Calhoun (left) as Prince Eric and Abby Middleton (right) as ArielJeri Tidwell Photography
Justin Calhoun (left) as Prince Eric and Abby Middleton (right) as Ariel

Strange as a dream, real as the sea, Justin Calhoun is as charming as can be! Mastering the role of Prince Eric, Calhoun transforms this production of The Little Mermaid and gives the audience a candid experience of the Prince’s quest for true happiness. There is a confident and almost cocky, yet humorous, air about his princely portrayal. Calhoun is somehow charming and sincere, desperate for the freedom of the open waves, and when he sings, he melts hearts. “Her Voice” is a stunning expression of his full vocal range, robust and glorious, filled to the brim with emotional fortitude and vocal excellence. “One Step Closer” possesses equal moments that astonish and captivate. Remarkably possessed of an undeniable youthful exuberance, Justin Calhoun spirits the show away on his shoulders, leading every moment with his heart and his voice, a truly perfect Disney Prince if ever there was one.

Lynn Sharp Spears (left) as Ursula and Abby Middleton (right) as ArielJeri Tidwell Photography
Lynn Sharp Spears (left) as Ursula and Abby Middleton (right) as Ariel

Far from being Daddy’s little angel, Ursula (Lynn Sharp Spears) is a powerhouse tour du force that all but steals the show in all her malevolent and magnificent ghastly glory. Spears is the impeccable balance of villainy and comedy incarnate. Truly presenting a classic Disney Villainess with her own little touches of terrifying delight all mixed in, Spears makes this Ursula a mesmeric marvel; one simply cannot tear their eyes away from her every time she slips onto the stage. With her larger than life glittering tentacle costume, Spears fills the entirety of the stage with her outrageous personality, to-die-for facial expressions, and phenomenal vocal prowess. “Daddy’s Little Angel” is redeemed as a number (Menken, Ashman, and Slater deserve to be raked across Ursula’s coals in her hell-soaked layer for that abomination) in Spears’ capable hands, as she presents a delightfully deranged and magnificently maniacal villain all throughout this song. Belting out her extraordinary voice during the infamous “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, the audience is treated to true Disney Villain terror, with a hint of humor, a dash of madness, and ultimately a sound that will echo in your mind for hours after the production has closed.

Don’t become one of Ursula’s poor unfortunate souls by missing this tremendously polished and utterly magical production of The Little Mermaid. With spectacularly clean special effects, a perfect sense of flow and movement from beginning to end, this show is true Disney magic just in time for the holidays. Toby’s Dinner Theatre is where all your December dreams will come true, just so long as you get under the sea to see them before they vanish in the new year!

Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission

The Little Mermaid plays through January 13, 2019 at Toby’s the Dinner Theatre of Columbia— 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets please call (410) 730-8311 or purchase them online

 


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