Friday, April 15, 2016

THE LITTLE MERMAID Free Rain Theatre


The Little Mermaid. 

Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater. Book by Doug Wright. Based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story and the Disney Film. Directed by David Atfield. Music Direction Nicholas Griffin. Conductor. Ian McLean Choreography. Michelle Heine. Set and Costume Design. Cate Clelland. Free Rain Theatre. Canberra Theatre. Canberra Theatre Centre. April 8 – 17. 2016


Reviewed by Peter Wilkins




There is so much to applaud in Free Rain Theatre’s production of The Little Mermaid at the Canberra Theatre that it is easy to forgive the occasional flaws in awkward staging or slightly tacky setting. These are minor glitches, easily compensated for by Cate Clelland’s spectacular costuming and Phil Goodwin’s  colourful lighting to enhance an otherwise parsimonious set design .However ambitious Free Rain’s mounting of The Little Mermaid on the commercial mainstage, there are instances of scrimp and save economics. That is only natural in a company that is primarily amateur, in production at least, though in this production, certainly not in its casting.   Director, David Atfield, Musical director, Nick Griffin and choreographer Michelle Heine have created a magical experience for young and old alike, due as much to the outstanding performances of the cast as to the technical wizardry of Chris Neal’s sound design and  Goodwin’s lighting design. Arrangements of the melodic songs of Alan Menkin with clever lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater,  and played by an accomplished and robust orchestra in the pit under the baton of Ian McLean, do more than simply imitate the sugary Disney world compositions, and imbue the story of the mermaid who wants to be human and marry a prince with tuneful sentiment and a captivating array of musical styles. I am particularly impressed by the eels’ ominous Sondheim like Sweet Child, Sebastian the Crab’s calypso Under the Sea, Scuttle the Seagull’s  Positooivity , Chef Louis’ uniquely French Les Poisson, Ariel’s Part of Your World and the company’s  stirring Finale rendition of Part of Your World   .
Mikayla Williams as Ariel in
Free Rain Theatre's The Little Mermaid


There is no escaping the fact that Hans Christian Anderson’s original tale of grim consequence of unnatural yearning has been Disneyfied to serve up a sanitized romance that can only have a happy ending. And why not? Free Rain Theatre’s production of the popular Disney version is pure entertainment, infectious in its exuberance, epic in its staging and performed with energetic vim, vitality and vivacity by an excellent, mainly local cast of singers, dancers and actors.



From the arrival of Prince Eric’s ship at the outset of the show and the rousing, finely sung chorus of Fathoms Below by Eric, Grimsby and the sailors, it was apparent that Free Rain’s production would be a fully charged theatrical experience. Only in the first appearance of King Triton’s court and later in Ariel’s bath scene in the palace did I feel that the staging didn’t do the scene justice through a lack of clear focus. Overall, the audience was transported into a world above and a sea kingdom below.
Fraser Findlay as Sebastian and Mikayla Williams as Ariel
Many years ago in the foyer of the Belconnen Community Theatre, visionary producer Anne Somes confided to me that within twelve years she hoped to create a local professional theatre company. Many years have passed but her Canberra Theatre productions of Phantom of the Opera, Mary Poppins and The Little Mermaid, let alone other successes have confirmed her ambition. She has created an outstanding ensemble of exceptional talent and with judicious enterprise employed artists of the highest calibre to bring her vision to life. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the casting of The Little Mermaid. It is this talent to recognize excellence and provide the opportunities for local and interstate talents to shine that is the hallmark of Anne Somes’s achievements. There are flaws, as I have mentioned, but the casting of the principals is inspired and their performances are exceptional. Only Fraser Findlay’s combined accent of West Indian mellifluence and Scottish brogue unsettled me, only to be reassured by  his comical sideways scramblings as Sebastian the crab and his beautifully sung solo in the If Only quartet.
The Mersisters and King Triton
 There isn’t a weak link to be found amongst the cast of this production. They act with conviction, dance with aplomb and sing with confidence, gusto and tuneful emotion. Michelle Heine’s routines are inventive in their fishy, sea creature gestures, as well as the more conventional tap, jazz  and waltz choreography.  Nicholas Griffin has captured the spirited effervescence of the familiar and catchy melodies in the company’s songs and elicited character and expression in the solos. Atfield’s direction lends the production drama and excitement and the entire impression is one of an ensemble relishing their roles and the exuberance of a colourful and vivid musical.
Louiza Blomfield as Aunt Ursula and
Jamie Winbank as Jetsam in The Little Mermaid
To name the many highlights of this production would be a lengthy accolade, but there are performances that deserve special mention. Mikayla Williams' Ariel  is sweet, charming and enchanting and it is hardly surprising that the dashing Prince Eric (Tim Dal Cortivo) should fall head over heels in love with Bradley’s voice and personality, even when her voice has been  sacrificed to the bitter and twisted Aunt Ursula, the inky villain of the piece. Louiza Blomfield is superb in the role and the stage is electrified by this remarkable performance. Tony Falla’s eccentric sense of comedy as the malapropismic Scuttle the Seagull is another highlight worth mentioning.  Falla and his fellow gulls bring the house down with the tap toeing Positootivity. A manic touch of Parisian culinary savoir faire laced with Sweeny Todd meat cleaver threat is David Cannell’s hilarious speciality in  Les Poisson. There is excellent support from the Mersisters, a hapless bunch of less favoured daughters of the autocratic King Triton (Steve Galincec) and the prince’s faithful guardian, Grimsby, is played with sober responsibility and reason by Colin Milner.
“My favourite was the Eels”, said my four year old grandson.”They had spiky hair” Indeed Jamie Winbank as Jetsam and David Santolin as Flotsam had the right touch of Uriah Heep obsequiousness as the servants of the evil Ursula. “My favourite was the mermaid with the orange sparkles in her dress. She was the best!” my five year old granddaughter piped up. A look through the programme revealed Philippa Murphy’s Aquata, but later questioning revealed that she also liked all the Mersisters. Both agreed that Scuttle and Sebastian were very funny and each had enjoyed the entire show. “I liked Flounder(Jake Willis)” my grandson said as we walked to the car after the show. “He sounded like Flounder in the movie. He talked like him too.” “He was very nice” my granddaughter added.
Tony Falla as Scuttle the Seagull
Disney musicals skirt the borders of the formulaic. It is hardly surprising that lyrics can incline to sound derivative and plot lines reveal their age old themes and familiar problems to be solved. The Little Mermaid is one of an ilk, but in the talented hands of Free Rain’s cast and crew, this production was a delight, and it is unfortunate that it was not playing to a full Canberra Theatre. Economics dictate seasons that make it difficult to recoup the expense during a short season and pro-am casting can restrict a more flexible and reasonable performance time. It is a shame. This production deserves a longer season, full houses  and standing ovations for a mainly local company of performers and crew who have brought to Canberra audiences a production of exceptional merit.

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