The seaweed is always greener, on somebody else’s stage. You’ve seen a bunch of productions, cause last year it was all the rage. But look at the show that’s happenin’— right there on the Carroll Arts Center floor, such different things about it— what more is you looking for? The Little Mermaid is splashing on stage as the 45th anniversary production of September Song. Directed by Debbie Mobley with Musical Direction by Kelly Stoneberger, and Choreography by Amy Appleby, this Disney fairytale classic will swim its way into your heart with the uniqueness that only a September Song production can bring when it comes to putting their spin on this ever-popular, frequently-produced blockbuster musicals.
While some of the choices that arise across the production are questionable (and a few that just don’t work no matter how unique they are), it cannot be said that the company and crew of The Little Mermaid isn’t giving it their all. The choreography is enthusiastic and energetic, filled with the bubbly delight of overjoyed cast members, even if it does at time crowd the stage or leave a bit to be desired when it comes to cleanliness and execution. The costumes, as designed by Barb Szaro, are not exactly what most are used to when they think of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, but this tends to be one of the many signature features that accompanies a September Song production. It’s clear who’s who, and although Ariel never sports shells (or anything remotely resembling stage Ariel, theme-park Ariel, or screen Ariel, other than her vibrant red wig), you never doubt that she’s every bit the Disney ingenue that The Little Mermaid is meant to be. With a lot of iridescent sequins, and a design that gives Ariel and the mersisters a more modest, family-friendly aesthetic, Barb Szaro costumes the cast in a way that is uniquely individual to a September Song show. Of course, every rule has its exception; Szaro chooses to exempt Ursula from this quirky aesthetic, making her a ferocious textbook icon of Disney villainy.
Lighting Designer Lindsay Sier uses a lot of colors and effects throughout the production. Regrettably they don’t always create the greatest visibility for various actors on stage. This only seems to be a real sticking point for the more makeup-detailed performers, like Ursula, King Triton, and Flotsam & Jetsam, whose stunning makeup effects are often lost in some of Sier’s design choices. But it’s hard to want to fault Sier’s lighting faux pas, or even notice them, when Jim Stoneberger’s set and digital projections (by the talented Stuart Kazanow) are so stunning. With a scrim draped behind Stoneberger’s pop-n-play, flip-n-fold set, Kazanow projects a series of detailed, moving sceneries that align with each scene as they move through it. The becalmed sea when Prince Eric first appears on his ship, or the murky coral-infested liar of the sea witch’s cave are just two that come easily to mind. Waves crash upon the shore, seaweed wriggles under the sea; each of Kazanow’s projections are more fitting than the last to really establish some theatrical magic and they melt perfectly from one to the next. (Watch the sunset melt into the starry night sky during “Dancing” and just try not to melt with it.) Kazanow’s magical projections feel very Disneyesque in their nature and are accompanied brilliantly by the sound designs and engineering of Corey Brown. Stoneberger deserves further praise for his incredible light-up and fully functioning trident, magic shell, and the ‘JellyBrellies.’
But Stoneberger doesn’t just dazzle the audience with his impressive digital projections; the entire set pulls out of itself, making transitions from ships to throne rooms, to watery hell-soaked liars, move effortlessly. Assisted by Properties Designer Melissa “Missy” Grim, things like the front of Prince Eric’s ship bear a flare of authenticity to them (albeit a darkly-humored one, with a mermaid mounted there.) Grim and Stoneberger have outdone themselves with all of the unique bits and pieces of scenery and props that enhance the overall production. Jellybrellies featured during “Under the Sea” are possibly the most magical singular element of the show, except of course for life being the bubbles at the end of that number.
Musical Director Kelly Stoneberger has done a masterful job of blending harmonies and working with Director Debbie Mobley and Assistant Director Amy Haynes Rapnicki to create beautiful sounds from the ensemble. Mobley and Rapnicki have created photo-worthy freeze-frame moments— like at the end of “Kiss the Girl” where everyone has the perfect crowding and bunching all around the rowboat but the sound still echoes naturally as if it were spread out across the full length of the stage. The well-known quartet number, “If Only” is smoothly blended as well, once again showcasing Stoneberger’s strength as a musical director.
Acting choices are clear across the board when it comes to some of the supporting principals. And while some of them aren’t exactly what’s expected or even recognized for these iconic characters, Director Debbie Mobley and Assistant Director Amy Haynes Rapnicki have really pushed for these choices to be clear as crystal water. Like the woebegone Sebastian (Matthew Lamb Jr.) who rather than scampering about with outraged crab-like energy, hangs his head and mopes around the stage, not unlike Eeyore (another well-loved Disney stereotype.) Will Brown’s Scuttle takes a similar kamikaze dive into the unknown, playing the bird-brained character with an unsettling edge. But Brown is loaded with that confidence and savoir faire of “just don’t care” as he struts himself all through “Positoovity”, Scuttle’s only number. Grimsby (Dennis Skinner) takes the seasick old guardian role to new heights, with his sneaky little pocket flask to help him cope with all of Prince Eric’s shenanigans.
John “Gary” Pullen’s Triton is a strong paternal force but the pleasant surprise comes in his two-lines of singing just after dismissing Ariel for visiting the surface. There is a deeply open vulnerability about how much he misses Ariel’s mother and how lost he is as a father without her that is very telling of the type of King Triton Pullen is being. With warm vocals that blend well in “If Only”, Pullen is a welcomed addition to the cast. David Kaiser II, playing the cameo comic role of Chef Louis, is an equally delightful vocal addition to the performance. With a robust, almost operatic sound, he steals the show for one brief moment during his rendering of “Les Poissons.” While the organized chaos that follows the number is a bit stifled and crowded, Kaiser is true gem twinkling in the cameo section of this cast.
Personalities are packed six ways to Sunday in the Mersisters (Daena Cox, Alexa Fanning, Rachel Jancarek, Alyson Kaiser, Alexandra Overby, Valeri Schneider) each of whom has their own quirky nuances that help differentiate one mersister from the next. Of course, Barb Szaro’s costumes help with the differentiation— each mersister has a different colored sequin-top. (And in this production we only see the Mersisters during their time spent under water, as Director Debbie Mobley chooses not to double-cast the Mersisters as the singing princesses featured during “The Contest.”) The little shoop-shoop doowop style dance shimmies that Cox, Fanning, Jancarek Kaiser, Overby, and Schneider perform during “She’s In Love” is too cute for words.
The show-stealer when it comes to that “She’s In Love” number is not any one of the eccentrically personalitied Mersisters but rather the adorkable guppy, Flounder (Jacinta McKinnon.) With a super adorable awkwardness that really gives the character a sense of purpose, McKinnon really lays into that number and gets comic timing in a way that simply cannot be taught. McKinnon really plays up the crush that Flounder has on Ariel but does it in the most haphazardly awkward pre-teen fashion that just screams adorable. So many of Flounder’s lines are pithy throwaways that were clearly written to make the Disney writers feel better about their comic skills, but with McKinnon’s clear character choice and keen understanding of comedic delivery, they finally land on the audience and earn laughs.
There is no shame in foregoing heelies. Or wheelies. Or whatever it is people expect to make the sea-folk float. And Debbie Mobley has foregone all of that, with the exception of the fantastically glamorous light-up scooters used for Flotsam (Danielle Rizzo) and Jetsam (Justin Patterson.) These two electric eels look the part (with dazzling makeup that gets lost in some of the murkier lighting choices) and really create that unsettling dizzy-feeling when they zip in and out on their light-up scooters. Their rendition of “Sweet Child” makes that number give you the squirmies. Rizzo and Patterson are the perfect accessory to the diva of the depths, that diabolically dark sea witch, Ursula.
Disney and its billions of profits should be ashamed for decimating a perfectly good number from its show for the divine character that is Ursula. They should bury their heads in the sand like ashamed ostriches for replacing “I Want The Good Times Back” with the revoltingly saccharine and story-altering “Daddy’s Little Angel.” Despite all of the shame Disney has brought to their musical theatre family, Amy Haynes Rapnicki as Ursula finds a way to make that atrocity of a song function. More than that she’s channeling hints of Pat Carroll and Sherie Rene Scott before adding her own deep-diva version of the wicked sea witch for this performance of Ursula. Her comic timing is sharp, her vocal presentation of Ursula, both when speaking and when singing, is on point, and her overall look is flawless (it’s full-body paint, like Elphaba-level committed body paint.) “Poor Unfortunate Soul” showcases the diva-deep belt, as well as the modified and epically wicked riff that Rapnicki has worked into the number’s end. Rapnicki creates new-wave Disney villainy, in that silly-but-sordid sense that makes the skin crawl while you giggle.
Appropriately engaged with the honest romance of the story, Nicholas Cloutier’s Prince Eric is simply charming. There is an honesty to the way he sings and to the way he speaks, whether its to Grimsby or Ariel. With a winsome voice well-suited for musical numbers like “Her Voice” and “Dancing” you hear his side of the fairytale. He partners beautifully with Ariel (at this performance Lilian Stoneberger.) Equally as winsome and infected with curiosity, Stoneberger’s Ariel is a strong match for this Prince Eric. She’s inquisitive in the way she approaches her various numbers, which gives a refreshing sound to “Part of Your World” and “Beyond My Wildest Dreams.” With a strong belt that pushes out fierce sounds when the music calls for it, Stoneberger will make you a part of Ariel’s world from the moment she sets fin— and foot— on stage.
It’s Disney magic done September Song style and for one weekend only (six performances, two of which are already sold out!) You won’t want to miss this iconic Disney classic done with the September Song twist. Be sure to get your tickets to The Little Mermaid for this weekend’s show, and life will truly be the bubbles for you!
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission
The Little Mermaid plays through September 8, 2019 with September Song at the Carroll Arts Center— 91 W. Main Street in downtown historic Westminster, MD. Tickets can be procured by calling the box office at (410) 848-7272 or by purchasing them online.