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by Michael Portantiere

Under the Sea, and Over the Moon

  • Little Mermaid.jpg


    When Disney's The Little Mermaid opened on Broadway in January, it was generally panned for Francesca Zambello's poor direction, the tacky scenic and costume designs of (respectively) George Tsypin and Tatiana Noginova, and book writer Doug Wright's ham-fisted adaptation of John Musker and Ron Clements' near-perfect screenplay for the classic animated film -- which, of course, was based on the beloved tale by Hans Christian Andersen.

    Every stone cast at these aspects of the production is well deserved, but I fear that some very positive points were lost in the general condemnation. Among them: Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater have done a magnificent job in augmenting the film's score, by Menken and the late Howard Ashman; Michael Kosarin's musical direction of the show is superb; and in the title role, Sierra Boggess offers one of the most charming, vocally beguiling performances in recent Broadway history. All of this is made clear by the show's delightful cast recording, which I haven't stopped playing since I got my hands on it.

    It's a pleasure to report that the show's 10 new songs are equal in quality to the half-dozen or so that were retained from the movie. Menken and Slater were especially successful in musicalizing the character of Prince Eric, who didn't sing a note in the flick. His big moment is "Her Voice," as haunting and romantic a reverie as one could ever hope to hear. The song is somewhat similar in feeling to "Why, God?" from Miss Saigon, but vastly superior to that derivative piece of schlock.

    Among the best of the other new items are the beautiful quartet "If Only" and two up-tunes performed by Scuttle (a terrific Eddie Korbich) and the Gulls, "Human Stuff" and "Positoovity." The opener, "Fathoms Below," has been expanded from the snippet heard in the movie to become a stirring, full-length sea chantey. Yet, without question, the most brilliant addition to the score is "She's In Love." Written in the style of an early-'60s rock power ballad, it's a thrillingly joyous and infectious number, especially as belted with pitch-perfect tone by Brian D'Addario in the role of Flounder. (More on this below.)

    I don't know a lot about Glenn Slater but, on the basis of his work here, he's an exceptionally talented lyricist. He can do sincerity without sentimentality, as in "Her Voice" and the quartet. But Slater can also be deliciously witty, as in the following quatrain from "She's in Love," sung by Flounder when he and Ariel's sisters notice the girl mooning over her prince: "She acts like she don't see me / She doesn't even speak / She treats me like sashimi / Left over from last week."

    As for Menken, he has cannily quoted or recycled bits of his previous work in the process of filling out this score. To cite three examples: the main melody of Eric's "One Step Closer" is taken from the lively dance that occurs just before the storm sequence in the Little Mermaid film; the accompaniment for Ariel's "Beyond My Wildest Dreams" recalls that of the "Belle" number in Menken and Ashman's Beauty and the Beast; and the gently syncopated orchestral ending of "The World Above" is pretty much the same as that of "Somewhere That's Green" in Little Shop of Horrors. But the bulk of the new stuff appears to be completely new, and it's all great.

    While each of the new songs in Mermaid is a winner in and of itself, some of them do seem a little redundant and/or misplaced in the context of the show. With the addition of "The World Above," Ariel now has two similar "I want" songs in which she expresses her desire to live on land rather than underwater; the other one is "Part of Your World," from the movie. And though Ursula's big, brassy show-stopper "I Want the Good Times Back" is a hoot, it would have been better slotted later in the action than as the Sea Witch's introductory number. (These songs might be enjoyed more fully if you program your CD player or iPod to play them as bonus tracks at the end of the album, rather than in show order. Just a suggestion!)

    In addition to the presence of a large, lush-sounding orchestra, the disc is commendable for exemplary solo performances. Best of all is Boggess, whose Ariel sounds not unlike Jodi Benson's in the movie but is different enough to be entirely her own creation. It's a challenge to play such a sweet, innocent, young character without coming across as insufferably cloying, yet Boggess walks (or swims) that line with ease. Her voice is so lovely that you won't tire of her songs even if you play them over and over, as I've found myself doing. The one downside of the CD is that it doesn't allow you to see how physically beautiful Boggess is, but some full-color photos in the accompanying booklet serve that purpose well.

    This Ariel is fated to be mated with the ardent Prince Eric of Sean Palmer. To be honest, Palmer looks just a tad too old for Boggess on stage; but he sounds great on the CD, singing with deep emotion and honeyed vocal tone. (It's hard to believe that, prior to this show, he was primarily thought of as a dancer.) Sherie Rene Scott's Ursula is a screamingly funny amalgam of Bette Davis, Tallulah Bankead, Beatrice Lillie, Rosie O'Donnell, Christine Baranski, and the Cowardly Lion -- on the recording, at least. Her performance was comparatively flat when I saw the show a few weeks ago, presumably the result of Zambello or someone else having foolishly instructed her to turn down the comedy several notches.

    Tituss Burgess is a treat as Sebastian the crab, wailing to the rafters in "Under the Sea" -- and a significant benefit of experiencing his performance on CD is that you won't be distracted by his silly costume. John Treacy Egan does a bang-up job with the chef's song, "Les Poissons." Tyler Maynard and Derrick Baskin are suitably sinister as Ursula's hench-eels, Flotsam and Jetsam. Norm Lewis's baritone sounds warm as always in King Triton's songs, but this character has been much less successfully musicalized than the others.

    Finally, as mentioned above, Brian D'Addario is amazing as the lead soloist of "She's in Love," so it's unfortunate that the CD booklet doesn't properly credit him. Four young actors are listed as alternates in the role of Flounder, but there's no indication of who is heard on the disc; I had to ask someone involved with the production, who told me it's D'Addario singing his heart out at the top of his range. Let's hope that this oversight will be corrected for future pressings.

    The official release date of the CD is February 26, and a special signing and performance event will take place from 4pm to 6pm that day at the Disney Store (Fifth Avenue at 55th Street). But the disc has been available at the Lunt-Fontanne theater and elsewhere for a few weeks already, and I hear it's flying off the shelves. Word must have gotten out that, while the show is deeply flawed in some respects, the cast album is nothing less than an undersea treasure. If you judge The Little Mermaid by listening to the recording without actually seeing the production, you may be inclined to proclaim it one of the best Broadway musicals of the past quarter century.

    Published on Thursday, February 21, 2008

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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