A Seeworthy Vessel of Enchantment
By Tom Wachunas
Translating a classic cartoon into a live stage production, such as Disney’s The Little Mermaid, can be a particularly daunting endeavor for any director, if only due to certain (inviolable?) expectations on the part of the audience. Understandably enough, we might look to be immersed in all the splashy special effects presumed to be necessary for evoking the experience of pure enchantment remembered from watching the animated film.
In this case, however, director Jonathan Tisevich and his production team (including scenic design by Joshua Erichsen, lighting and sound by Scott Sutton, and costumes by Stephen Ostertag) have opted for a relatively more reductive approach. Call it an understated if not raw abstraction of a fantasy water world. An aesthetic gamble to be sure, the ocean kingdom is largely symbolized by wooden sculptures - curved ramp-like structures that sweep vertically upwards to subtly suggest both big waves and sailing ships. Yet for the most part, the gamble pays off. Including the use of simple, unimposing mechanical hand puppets for some of the characters (designed and created by Kevin Anderson) rather than elaborate full-body costumes to imitate the film, the overall minimization of expected dazzling visuals becomes a curiously special framing effect in itself. It’s a directorial decision that maximizes our focus on the story and the flesh-and-blood characters as played out by the cast members, all thoroughly captivating and indeed delightfully real in their own right.
With a deftly soaring voice that cuts to the heart, Kaelin Curran is mesmerizing in her role Ariel, the mermaid who yearns to be human. Her singing is an intense, wholly believable embodiment of longing to be with the man, Eric. As Eric, the charming earthly prince who feels out of place in the royal trappings of his own world, Zach Stark turns in an equally compelling performance. Late in Act II, for the song “If Only,” Curran and Stark are joined by the marvelously sonorous Mark Dillard (playing Ariel’s father, King Triton) and Matthew Horning, who holds his authentic Jamaican accent very well throughout the evening as he plays Sebastian, the lovable crab who’s as skittish as he is watchful. The quartet’s stirring emotive harmonies take on a particularly spiritual dimensionality.
Meanwhile, Stanley Niekamp is notably endearing as he brings delicious flavor to the youthful Flounder, who clearly has a schoolboy crush on Ariel. As the frenetic seagull, Scuttle, Bobby Severns is a jubilant purveyor of goofy malapropisms, declaring a salvaged fork to be a “dinglehopper” for combing Ariel’s tresses, and a tobacco pipe a “banded, bulbous snarfblatt,” to be blown as a horn. And gut-splitting hilarity ensues when cleaver-wielding Tyler Ferrebee, as Chef Louis, cavorts about the stage during “Les Poissons,” singing his praises of all the seafood he’s preparing (including a nearly boiled-alive Sebastian) for a royal dinner.
Especially memorable is Loralee Myers in her role of the diabolical Ursula - a large, electrifying presence in every way. With her snaky, sycophantic attendants (Flotsam and Jetsam, played by Matti-Lynn Chrisman and Justin James Ollis) in constant tow, she’s a tentacled, luminous wonder whose every word, giggle, and guffaw is delivered with show-stopping bravura. Her powerful renditions of “Daddy’s Little Angel” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” are gripping moments, infused with equal parts dark sarcasm and palpable menace.
The live orchestra under the direction of Steve Parsons is consistently excellent in navigating the score’s sparkling mélange of musical genres. Similarly, the choreography by Michael Lawrence Akers is performed with infectious abandon, including the ensemble tap dancing choreographed by Molly Weidig for “Positoovity,” a giddy number led by Scuttle. When not dancing, ensemble members still often convey a sense of moving through water via the gentle, waving motions of their hands and arms as they traverse the stage.
After all was said, sung, danced, and done on opening night, I looked to my wife and our accompanying grandchildren. Standing in ovation, we smiled at each other and nodded our agreement that this evening was positoovely enthrallimizing.
Disney's The Little Mermaid / Players Guild Theatre Mainstage, Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. N, Canton, Ohio / through May 28 / Shows at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday TICKETS: $27 adults, $19 ages 17 and younger, $24 seniors, at www.playersguildtheatre.com and 330-453-7617.
PHOTOs, by Michael Lawrence Akers, from top: Kaelin Curran as Ariel and Zach Stark as Eric; Kaelin Curran; Loralee Meyers as Ursula; Matthew Horning as Sebastian; pencil drawing by me