As Prince Eric would tell you, it's all about a voice. The prince was rescued from a watery grave by someone — or something — with the song of the angel, and he won't rest until he finds the owner of those pipes again. He's not the only one. Any theatrical company looking to plunge into the waters of producing Disney's The Little Mermaid would be foolish not to build around the vocals of the ingenue playing the title mermaid.
The producers of McCoy Rigby Entertainment's Little Mermaid at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts found their Ariel in Alison Woods, a wide-eyed and occasionally spunky actress who is more than up for the job. She ably paces Glenn Casale's undersea cast, but the charms of La Mirada's Mermaid are by no means limited to Alan Menken's score and its leading lady's singing abilities. By spending freely on the production's design and technical palate, MRE (partnering with four regional theaters) serves up an evening full of visual delights. Scenic designer Kenneth Foy, costume designers Amy Clark and Mark Koss, and lighting designer Charlie Morrison make us feel as if we're really under the sea. Further enhancing the journey is veteran flying sequence supervisor Paul Ruben, who keeps Ariel and several of her finned friends soaring.
The production's first image, behind a screen of bubbles, is an airborne Woods in a shimmery green and violet dress that sways and undulates in the invisible current. It's a quietly magical thing to watch, and the more creatures (mermaids, fish, crustaceans) we watch gently pulsating to the rhythm of the ocean, the more acclimated we become. The whole world is put on vibrant display — Clark and Koss' costumes most notably — in the musical's signature number, "Under the Sea."
Dreamy Ariel covets life in the world above the waves while a seafaring Prince Eric (Eric Kunze) prefers a life on them. Since the boy has to take over the throne from his late father and since the girl is sea-bound, neither wish seems destined for fulfillment. Ariel arrives late to a music performance for her father, King Triton (Fred Inkley), prompting dad to lay down the law over fraternizing with dangerous land denizens. Bandleader crab Sebastian (Melvin Abston) is deputized to keep Ariel out of trouble, but she is constantly giving him the slip or swearing him to secrecy. Up on dry land, Eric faces a time clock: He must marry by his birthday in order to give the kingdom a queen. Ariel strikes a bargain with her aunt, the sea witch Ursula (Tracy Lore): Ariel gets three days on land. If she can get a boy to kiss her, she can stay. Otherwise, she goes back to the brine and forfeits her angelic voice to Ursula.
Woods and Kunze keep the heat between Ariel and Prince Eric at a family-friendly low boil. The two actors both sing beautifully and are an attractive pair, although Kunze (who has played the role several times before) is likely on the edge of being too old to play coming-of-age princes. Woods and Inkley work some gentle father-daughter chemistry into the second act. Yes, this is also a tale about letting your children grow up.
Librettist Doug Wright's characters (adapted from the animated film and based on Hans Christian Anderson's tale) aren't particularly deep to begin with, and Casale's cast knows exactly what to make of them. Sidekick characters are appropriately goofy (as in the case of Adam Garst as fish Flounder and Jamie Torcellini as the seagull Scuttle) or prim (Time Winters' steward Grimsby). When she unleashes a series of fishy puns, Lore's Ursula positively cracks herself up, and she tears into the menacing Act 1 closer "Poor Unfortunate Souls" with villainous gusto. As the seafood-preparing Chef Louis, a deliciously campy Jeff Skowron wrings plenty of laughs over "Les Poissons," his musical battle with Sebastian, executed with all sorts of artful high jinks by choreographer John MacInnis.
Beloved as the source tale is, however, this musical needs all the visual dazzle it can muster. The Little Mermaid suffers from some plot bloat and gets bogged down a bit in the second act before arriving at its inevitable happy ending. In the years since the 1989 film ushered in a new age of Disney animation, a plethora of stronger and more layered Disney heroines have emerged, and it will be interesting to track whether a teenaged mermaid who trades her voice for a shot at kissing a prince can continue to enchant all but the very young.
All in all, La Mirada's Little Mermaid is a crowd-pleaser for audiences young and old, landlubbing and seafaring.