Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Little Mermaid - Free Rain

Review by John Lombard

Her voice for a pair of legs. Since Ariel's (Mikayla Williams) ultimate goal is to confess her feelings to a guy, that might not be the best deal to make, especially when the boy in question is besotted with her singing voice. And even if it was a good deal, it was definitely a bad idea to make it with Ursula (Louiza Blomfield), the sinister and untrustworthy sea-hag who intends to claim Ariel's immortal soul if she can't poach a smooch from the guy in three days.

Director David Atfield identifies Ariel's appeal as a hero in her courage and willingness to risk everything to follow her dreams. That's true: she does take a dumb risk. Her pact with the sea witch condemns her to woo gentle Prince Eric (Tim Dal Cortivo) with a dedicated campaign of miming and interpretive dance, even while a singing contest is held in a desperate hunt for that golden voice. It's as though Cinderella has hocked her glass slipper.

In real life (and in the original fairy tale), this would be a tragedy. But this is a Disney musical, so instead Ariel and the Prince instantly hit it off so well that Ursula is forced to resort to a campaign of dirty tricks to prevent a fatal lip-lock.

But even if Ariel's judgement is pretty awful, we do have a lot of sympathy for her. Her Dad, King Triton (Steve Galinec) is an indulgent father, doting on his daughter but outsourcing any actual parenting to court composer crustacean Sebastian (Fraser Findlay). Sebastian - appropriately enough for a musician - starts off by suggesting Ariel take up a musical instrument, then tries to convince her to embrace life in the ocean by singing about it.

While we've all been tempted at times to solve our problems with a musical number, it's not the wise parenting Ariel really needs. Then when Triton does get involved, he over-reacts, driving Ariel into the welcoming tentacles of the sea witch. Steve Galinec hits the right note of a soft monarch who overwhelmed by his bevvy of daughters and is better at hosting concerts than he is at, for example, leading an army to deal with the outstanding sea witch problem. Near the end of the show, there is an attempt to give Ariel some control over the outcome of her story. But for the most part, she is caught up in a current she can't control.

In the wrong hands this could be a very unlikeable character, but Mikayla Williams gives us an ebullient Little Mermaid, eager and passionate and curious and enthusiastic. Williams has a phenomenal voice and a lot of the joy of the show comes from her amazing singing. But even when the story strips her of that voice, she communicates equally effectively by flopping her legs about with a dizzy joy at her new appendages. Williams gives the stand-out performance of the show.

With Tim Dal Cortivo as Prince Eric, she has a convincing love match. Eric also belongs to wayward royalty, the dapper prince who would rather go sailing than learn how to rule his people. He is gentle and extremely kind but somehow it is very hard to picture him living the real hardships of a sailor's life. Prince Eric longs for the sea while Ariel wishes for dry land. In actual fact, they both have their head in the clouds, and therefore by similarity of temperament have a firm basis for a lasting relationship.

The love story is supported by an unusually vibrant and lively supporting cast. Stand-outs are Tony Falla as goofy seagull scuttle; Fraser Findlay's exasperated Sebastian; David Cannell's murderous chef; and Triton's other daughters, who play off each other as a comedy troupe. Meanwhile Louiza Blomfield's Ursula is black-hearted, but with high confidence and sex appeal giving her strong presence as the antagonist.

Where the show falters is in staging, with a uninspired set limiting what can be achieved on stage. "Under The Sea", should have been a show-stopper, but the choreography was not as rousing and creative as we expect that scene to be.  True, it has to compete with the flexibility of animation, but better staging would have opened up more possibilities for movement.  An atmospheric "Kiss The Girl" in Act 2 was better realised, but for the most part the spectacle of the show fell short of Free Rain's previous big stage musicals, including last year's excellent Mary Poppins.

One thing the play does extremely well is in raising the stakes and putting the characters under pressure.  Ariel only has three days to win the prince, so she is instantly on a very tight clock, with eternity on the line.  Even more dramatic, the humans she meets on the surface are eager eaters of fish, and there is a ghoulishly funny scene where she recognises some familiar faces at the dinner table.  This is Romeo and Juliet if the Capulets were trying to eat the Montagues. 

The Little Mermaid is definitely an all-ages production, but it is most strongly pitched at a younger audience who will delight in its vibrant animal characters and beautiful mermaid lead.  But like older Disney movies, it has a wobbly message that if you are pretty everything will work out for you.  In no way is this a feminist story.  At one point Ursula opines that Ariel will get her man because guys only care about hotness, and nothing that happens proves her wrong.  Fortunately Mikayla Williams secures the core of the show with a joyous and engaging performance.

The Little Mermaid is a romp with funny character acting, catchy music and an involving story.  Best for the kids who will love splashing around in the shallow water; adults will have to avoid diving too deeply into the messages lurking in the depths.