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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater

By Jessica Branch

  Sierra Boggess/PH:Joan Marcus

It's not that anyone expects great art from Disney. We all know the formula: Take a twenty-year-old cartoon, stage a few catchy songs, add a spectacular effect or two, and if there's a princess in it, try to keep the narrative from becoming too blatantly anti-female, then count on nostalgia and tourists to fill the seats. But the monolith's latest venture into Broadway sinks like a stone before it even gets out of the harbor.


I have to admit to being one of the few who have never seen the 1989 film, which I understand is charming - at least, that's what the 30- and 40-something women by whom I was surrounded at the theater seemed to think as they sang along on all the original songs (many new ones have been added to fill out the show's two and a half hours). Nonetheless, the action was easy enough to follow, albeit as improbable as anything featuring mer-people on skates is likely to be. And since I am familiar with the Hans Christian Andersen original of this fishy tale, I was curious to see how the heroine would be transformed into one of Disney's gutsy new breed - princesses who don't wait around to be rescued by their Princes Charming.


Pretty unconvincingly is the answer. The youngest daughter of the mer-king (Norm Lewis), Ariel (Sierra Boggess) falls in love with the adventurous prince of an earthly kingdom (Sean Palmer), and she (unwittingly) betrays her father and her people by bartering her voice to her evil, power-hungry, carnivorous aunt Ursula (Sherie Rene Scott) in order to pursue him. Her exasperated tutor (Titus Burgess) follows to provide comic relief and, you know, some dialogue, while she tries to express her love for the prince, who is torn between the beautiful mer-voice that haunts him and the mysterious mute beauty who's inexplicably moved into the castle.


Well, female role models have never been Disney's strong suit, so how else could they go wrong? Let's count the ways: There's the awkward, bobbing prosthetic tails threatening to overbalance the hapless mer-folk choruslines. The often barely identifiable costumes on the other creatures (Seagulls? Eels? Octopi? Cousteau would have a breakdown.) The insipid musical arrangements. The appalling multi-levelled creepiness of the cave in which Ariel hides bits of trash discarded by the humans. Oh, and the book itself, a tragic comedown for Doug Wright, who previously penned the brilliant Grey Gardens and I Am My Own Wife.


These characters are so generic that it's hard even to assess the abilities of the leads: Suffice it to say they don't manage to transcend the banality of their roles. Despite an accent that swings from Aussie to Austrian, Scott manages to milk some entertaining drama out of her evil, if two-dimensional, role, and you get the impression that Burgess could be impressive in something else. But it's really the gulls raucous Positoovity, a strutting anthem to hubristic incompetence, which seems to sum up the show's real raise d'etre.


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