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‘Little Mermaid’ makes a big splash at Muny

By Judith Newmark | Post-Dispatch Theater Critic

If you go to the Muny, you have seen shows with lots of children on stage as well as in the audience. But you’ve never seen a children’s chorus used as effectively, as aptly or as beautifully as director Paul Blake uses the Muny’s Youth Ensemble in “The Little Mermaid,” the Disney show that opened Wednesday night.

There are delightful performances from adult actors, too, and we’ll get to those. But the children, who portray schools of fish, set the tone for the show. Wiggling across the big stage in shimmering pastel costumes, they create the illusion of another, much more enchanting world. That’s where Blake and the show’s creators want to take us.

Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story of a mermaid who falls in love with an earthbound prince, the musical was a huge screen success in 1989. Invigorating both the Disney brand and modern musical theater, “The Little Mermaid” led the way for such subsequent hits as “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.” But its Broadway treatment wasn’t a megahit like the others.

More than 9,000 theatergoers – the biggest crowd of the season – turned out on opening night to see the show’s Muny debut. They saw a buoyant production that moves along swimmingly, thanks to vivid characters, imaginative (not gimmicky) staging and a few outstanding songs.

Patti Murin as the mermaid Ariel and John Riddle as Prince Eric, fairy-tale lovers pure of voice and intention, display poise and charm. But they have a lot of valuable company throughout, including the Youth Ensemble in the splashiest number, “Under the Sea.”

A vivacious extravaganza of dance, music and gorgeous outfits, “Under the Sea” turns into the “Mermaid” counterpart of “Be Our Guest” from “Beauty and the Beast.” The romantic “Kiss the Girl” is another stage triumph, from the dancers dressed as starfish to the seductive sound of the Muny orchestra led by Greg Anthony to a rowboat that seems to drift dreamily over the stage.

Both songs are led by Francis Jue, playing Sebastian the Crab. Jue is one of several Muny veterans whose vivacious performances lift “Mermaid” into the thoroughgoing fantasy of theater that’s genuinely meant for children. (That may be the most useful definition of children’s shows at the Muny, where most productions are family-friendly to begin with.) Paul Vogt, as the scheming sea witch Ursula, is a total treat, dressed like an ice cream cone from Three Mile Island and carrying on like a deranged Queen of Hearts.

We also have Ken Page as noble King Triton, Lee Roy Reams as a ritzy French chef and Lara Teeter as Scuttle, a wise-guy seagull. When he and a chorus of dancing gulls perform “Positoovity,” they seem to make a collective leap to fantasy from the world of live dancers, splendidly choreographed by Alex Sanchez. He consistently evokes an undersea world with the ensemble’s fluid, subtle arm gestures.

Matt Braver and Max Kumangai as Ursula’s pet eels, reminiscent of the Siamese cats in “Lady and the Tramp,” and fourth-grader Elizabeth Teeter (Lara Teeter’s daughter) as Ariel’s impish pal Flounder also sail over the top, human actors whose performances suggest the freedom of animation.

True, the songs, by composer Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, are easy to divide into the superb ones from the movie and the weaker ones that came later. But somebody solved a potential problem, the heroine’s decision to trade her voice to Ursula in exchange for feet.

Theoretically, that means Ariel can’t sing at all in the second act. However, she sings when she “thinks.” That’s fine when she’s alone on stage, kind of confusing when others are around – especially to very young theatergoers. They may also be baffled by the chef’s decision to throw Sebastian’s hat into a cooking pot, instead of Sebastian. (Could it be so hard to get a really big pot?)

But what’s most apt to confuse them are the changes between the stage play and the familiar Disney movie. For one thing, the play establishes Ursula and Triton as sister and brother, vying to rule the sea; for another, it gets rid of the storyline in which Ursula disguises herself as a beautiful girl, Vanessa, with Ariel’s voice.

Actually, both changes are improvements. Vanessa is an extraneous character who makes Eric seem gullible, and the family connection echoes many great stories (think Shakespeare).

But will that satisfy young theatergoers who know the movie inside-out? It’s a teaching moment: There’s more than one way to tell a story. Say it again, and again. That’s a lesson worth teaching.