CHICAGO — Unless there’s a violent storm, an actual shipwreck, and live seagulls, it’s a bit of a stretch to convey the kind of seaworld setting of the 1989 Walt Disney film The Little Mermaid. But Music Theater Works does a great job of conveying a seashore and the kind of underwater world that you experience in animated film. More importantly, a show like The Little Mermaid is a joy that offers positive and inspirational affirmation.
With the artistic touch of talented co-directors Joshua Castille and Stacey Flaster in the show’s stagecraft, and imaginative designers and charming performers, it doesn’t take long before we think we’re in a waterscape when we’re watching Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale are brought to life on stage.
From story to film to musical
Indeed, many waterlogged objects hang from the theater’s rafters (the set designed by Shane Cinal and Ellen Marcus with shimmering lighting by Andrew Meyers) and a touch of salt in the air that suggests we’re no longer there in an urban setting.
With a book by Doug Wright, this theatrical revival is an enchanting treat for children and their families. The story revolves around a teenage mermaid princess, Ariel, who is fascinated by the world of mankind and wants to explore the land above the sea.
Her father, Triton, king of the seas, is very much against it, but Ariel, stubborn like many teenagers, goes ashore and falls in love with Eric, a human prince. However, she has a problem because she cannot walk with a mermaid’s tail. Determined, she makes a Faustian bargain with the sea witch Ursula to trade her tail for feet. It’s a dangerous deal because Ariel has three days to kiss Eric, and if she doesn’t succeed she will lose her voice and her freedom.
Actors on a lake stage
While it’s important to convey an oceanic vibe, the most intriguing aspect of this show is the performers, some of whom are forced to portray undulating sea creatures with no swirls. On the side of evil is the terrifying sea witch Ursula, portrayed with great glee by Caroline Lyell, assisted by Gus Franchere as Flotsam and Anakin White as Flotsam.
On the good side is Joselle Reyes with the golden voice as Ariel and her friends Scuttle, portrayed by Clayton Cross; Sebastian played by Wesley Anthony Clerge; Flounder, in a nice twist by Eloise Mulliken; and Ariel’s love interest, Prince Eric, played by a convincing velvety-voiced Nathan Karnik.
Since this “Mermaid” is a musical, there are many captivating songs composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glen Slater such as “Part of Your World”, “Poor Unfortunate Souls”, “Under The Sea” and other “Kiss the girls.” These are directed by Music Director Celia Villacres and energized by choreography by Flaster and Matthew Weidenbener.
A highlight of the show is the whimsical, colorful costume designs by Rachel M. Sypniewski. It’s not easy finding an inventive dress for actors who need to look and move in a snuggly, rubbery manner to convey the appearance of fish-like creatures. Because of this, some of Sypniewski’s designs are ingenious.
For the boys and not so
The children at the show I was watching had looks of wondrous amusement on their faces as the magic of the spectacle unfolded. In fact, the adult family members accompanying the children appeared to be having a good time themselves. But while The Little Mermaid is fun entertainment, it also contains important messages for little ones.
For example, the heroine of the story, Ariel, is brave. She knows what she wants and is willing to sacrifice for love and freedom. The fantasy shows that every victim has a risk with their own reward.
It also teaches that even if someone has accomplished a feat such as the mermaid rescuing the prince, they may not be compensated for it. It’s an encouragement to do what you think is right, even if the effort isn’t always rewarded.
But the show isn’t just for kids. Adults who are also inundated with poor entertainment choices will appreciate this production as well. Indeed, this show has a way of bringing out the kid in everyone.
‘The little mermaid’
Works of musical theater
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts
9501 Skokie Boulevard, Skokie, Illinois
Tickets: 847-673-6300 or MusicTheaterWorks.com
Runs: 2 hours, 35 minutes
Closes: June 26, 2022