It’s perhaps unfair to compare the stage version of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” playing at Starlight Theatre through June 11, to the animated classic, but it’s impossible not to. So let’s just admit up front that the main pleasure to be gotten from the show is seeing the beloved story and songs again from a slightly different angle.
The plot, and even the script at times, sticks pretty close to the original. Ariel is the youngest daughter of the sea king, Triton, and longs to experience life on dry land. Eric is a prince with an affinity for the ocean. Ariel defies her father and gives up her most cherished asset, her voice, to become a human and be with Eric. Her plans are nearly foiled by Ursula the sea witch, but good prevails in the end and the couple live happily ever after, with the approval of both their families.
The subplot in which Ursula impersonates a beautiful young woman to lure Eric away from Ariel is scrapped here in favor of a Cinderella-esque scenario where Eric must choose a bride from an entourage of hopefuls. In this story’s climax, Ursula is dispatched of much more quickly.
In expanding the 82-minute film into a full-length musical, the secondary characters are given more fleshed-out back stories. Eric struggles with his late royal father’s expectations while he tries to find a girl who is willing to go sailing with him. King Triton’s overprotectiveness stems from his wife’s tragic death, which he is still grieving. Ursula, we learn, resents Triton and Ariel because she is Triton’s sister—and she believes he stole the kingdom from her.
Several songs have been added. They play their part, illuminating characters’ emotions and motivations, but none of them are as lyrically sharp or memorable as the film’s original songs. Sebastian the crab’s calypso numbers, “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl,” anchor each act as its musical highlight.
Melvin Abston’s Sebastian is an audience favorite. As the frantic go-between for Triton and Ariel, he has to do a lot of heavy lifting: trying to persuade Ariel to stay in the ocean one minute and trying to get Eric to kiss human Ariel the next. Abston performs his songs well and shuffles around on stage to comic crablike effect.
Diana Huey and Eric Kunze are perfectly fine as Ariel and Eric, struggling to be true to themselves in the face of familial obligations. But neither brings much specificity or originality to their characters, despite their claims to be misfits.
Jennifer Allen chews scenery and whips her tentacles around as Ursula. In her hands, the sea witch is more sneaky and misunderstood rather than horrifying and evil, as her animated predecessor was.
The biggest question for a stage version of an animated movie set in the ocean is: How do they bring the world to life? They do it in a variety of ways. All the mer-characters wear flowing green skirts that evoke tails. Ariel and Triton “swim” across the stage on wires, while Flotsam and Jetsam, the electric eels, skate around on Heelys.
The approach is effective, but it also makes for some static blocking. It isn’t fair that the film’s “camera” could look down on Ariel’s shipwreck grotto from above and watch her spiral upward, while stage viewers have to be content with a front-angle only. But this is the challenge the creators of the show set themselves in adapting the material. An audience who merely wants to be part of that world once again will appreciate the effort.
“Disney’s The Little Mermaid” continues through June 11 at Starlight Theatre. See kcstarlight.com or call 816-363-7827.