Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” the latest production that is spending this week at Broadway San Jose, is not a show I would fit into my personal demographic. But as someone who remembers the return of the full length animated feature, cartoons that felt like Broadway musicals, I can certainly appreciate and most definitely enjoy the human version of the mermaid who wants to be human.
As a dad with three daughters, I can appreciate a Disney princess like nobody’s business. Spending time at Disneyland and Disney World, meeting a princess for a little girl is a life-changing experience. It was a few years ago that my wife and I spent three hours giving our youngest the opportunity to meet Elsa and Anna of “Frozen” fame. And that minute spent, where she was called “Little Snowflake” by Anna and asked Elsa where Olaf was, was worth every minute of the other 180 minutes spent crawling through a line.
While I haven’t spent hours on end analyzing the virtues of each Disney princess, I’ve always liked the curiosity and rebelliousness of Ariel, who first met the masses of cartoon lovers in the 1989 film, and was based on the Danish fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. She is extremely relatable, as evidenced by the scores of little girls in the audience who wore Ariel dresses and hairpieces on opening night, squealing with glee as she swam through the sea and generally acted like Ariel was there just for them.
As Ariel, Diana Huey has it all going for her. With a deliciously rich voice that has the vibrato and the belts needed, Huey is instantly likable and plays a role that has quite a range. There are really two Ariels in the show – the one that is wide-eyed, finding a little girls joy in her treasures, especially a dinglehopper that looks an awful lot like a fork, and is used to comb hair. And the other is in act two, a girl who has no voice and has to gesture everything to be seen.
I was a bit taken by the fact that Huey’s ethnicity was reportedly an issue in some other cities. The Japanese-born actress is playing a mermaid. Mermaids aren’t part of an ethnicity, right? They are mermaids. I’ve never personally met any. And neither have the ignorant fools who would make this an issue. Are mermaids like, real? But I digress.
There are plenty of joyous performances and the biggest hits never feel like they are ridiculously over the top. Not like a “Be Our Guest” in “Beauty and the Beast,” where about 500 different colored plates are used. What these production numbers offer is a subtlety that makes color the focal point of the number. The stage, the materials of Mark Koss and Amy Clark’s wonderful costumes, and Kenneth Foy’s scenic design are awash in bright aqua colors and bubbles. Rich blues and oranges fill the stage in a set that kind of moves through space north and south, the sea and the land.
While there is plenty of richness in Alan Menken’s music, along with Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater’s lyrics, the signature numbers come through with gusto. “Part of Your World” is such a beautifully layered piece that does so much to provide organic insight into young Ariel’s plight, sung with wonderful skill by Huey as she gleefully bounced through the air. And despite that a fair dose of music leaned a bit too much on the banal side of things, Director Glen Casale, paired with choreographer John MacInnis moves the action through the various spaces that encompass the stage with great doses of humanity and pensivity.
Numbers like “Kiss the Girl” and “Under the Sea” also do plenty for that feeling of Disney comfort food. Melvin Abston offers plenty of comic timing as the gullible and stressed crustacean Sebastian. And Buddy Hackett incarnate Jamie Torcellini, as dim-witted sea scholar Scuttle brings forth plenty of buffoonery and some serious tap-dancing chops along with his Scuttle buddies. While Prince Eric is a bit of a wet blanket, Eric Kunze and his rich voice possess a gentle humanity to his portrayal of the love-starved prince. And a broad comic portrayal by Dane Stokinger as Chef Louis and his fish-hatred tune “Les Poissons” is full of creative staging and physical humor.
As a show geared towards a younger group, I was most curious about the Ursula factor, played with a big presence by Jennifer Allen. The cartoon didn’t pull a lot of punches in how it dealt with Ursula, and the stage play did a nice job of not compromising the story yet not scaring the crap out of every child in the audience. My best test of this was my five-year-old daughter, who never left my lap and didn’t look away at the climax.
Speaking of my daughter, this was her first Broadway musical. And even though our experience in act one was a bit touch and go, with missing mommy and a desired visit to the restroom she left 20 minutes prior, we got through it. And when it came to act two, she was all in, never looking away.
This was cool, especially because I didn’t know how this night would go. We went from the possibility of sneaking a text for mommy to pick her up at intermission, to her trying to reach for confetti released from the canons by the end.
And although she won’t understand the significance of it now or anytime soon, someday I will tell her she saw a Japanese-born, Asian-American Disney princess playing Ariel at her first ever Broadway show.
That’s not just awesome.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Broadway San Jose presents Pittsburgh CLO and Kansas City Starlight’s production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater
Book by Doug Wright
Musical direction by Colin R. Freeman
Choreographed by John MacInnis
Directed by Glenn Casale
The Word: The humanity of Ariel is channeled nicely by Huey’s wide-ranging performance. A delightful show that’s fun for the kids and plenty for the adults to get behind too.
Stars: 4 out of 5
The San Jose Center for Performing Arts
255 S. Almaden Blvd., San Jose, CA 95113
Tickets range from $48 – $228
For tickets, call (800) 982-2787 or visit www.broadwaysanjose.com