"Disney's The Little Mermaid" Makes a Big Splash

Jay Kelley as Sebastian (center) and the Ensemble perform "Under the Sea" (Photo courtesy of Fiddlehead Theatre Company/Eric Antoniou).

Jay Kelley as Sebastian (center) and the Ensemble perform "Under the Sea" (Photo courtesy of Fiddlehead Theatre Company/Eric Antoniou).

Fiddlehead Theatre Company brings a vibrant reimagining of the timeless fairy tale Disney’s The Little Mermaid to the historic Strand Theatre in Dorchester, Massachusetts for the holidays.  The company, under the expert team and tutelage of Founding Producing Artistic Director Meg Fofonoff and Associate Producing Artistic Director Stacey Stephens, succeeds in producing this demanding musical because they embrace the roots of the story, allowing their actors to explore their own journeys of love, courage, and sacrifice under the sea and on dry land.  The moving story of Ariel’s struggle towards self-discovery and maturity resonates as clear as the original fairy tale, and the cast and crew accentuate Hans Christian Anderson’s original story in their acting and designs. This is a musical and production that I am proud to support because of the risks taken by the exceptionally talented cast, the informed production team, and the collaboration to create a seamless and engrossing story for this beautiful space.

Disney’s The Little Mermaid is a 2008 Broadway adaptation of the 1989 animated movie and it follows the same favorite characters, including the curious Ariel, the careful Flounder, the stubborn King Triton, the dreamy Prince Eric, and the frightening Ursula.  However, though the music is written by original songwriter Alan Menken and lyrics by both Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, the book is expanded by renown playwright Doug Wright. Wright brings more humor (the musical is filled with sea-rated puns) but also depth to the characters above and below the water level.  The littlest mermaid, Ariel (played with innocence by Jesse Lynn Harte), longs to explore the wonders of the human world, and she spends most of her time at the water’s surface rather than on the ocean floor with her family, lead by the dynamic King Trinton (played with pitch-perfect musicality by Andrew Giordano).  When a family misunderstanding of prejudice, lies, and hate drive Ariel to the welcoming arms of her Auntie Ursula, the Sea Witch (played by the virtuoso talent and enrapturing Shana Dirik), trouble and a new pair of legs force our heroine to the sea shore.  Here, she meets the man of her dreams, the dashing Prince Eric (played by the charming and energetic Jared Troilo), but she loses her voice.  Ariel must learn where she belongs, and learn what it really means to be human before she can escape the Sea Witch’s dastardly plan to steal her voice and her father’s kingdom.  Humor, song, and dance accompany us on this voyage on the ocean floor and in the palace fit for a princess.

As always, Fiddlehead Theatre Company assembles a top-notch 22-piece orchestra to fill the gorgeous strand theatre with Menken’s soaring ballads and delightful up-tempos, including fan favorites “Under the Sea,” “Part of Your World,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” and “Kiss the Girl.”  However, the score also features some stunning new works, fitting perfect in their singers’ voices, including my personal favorite “If Only,” a tender quartet among Ariel, Prince Eric, King Triton, and Sebastian; “Daddy’s Little Angel,” a funny piece of exposition about Ursula and King Triton’s family life, sung by Ursula, Fletsam, and Jetsam; and “Positoovity,” an exciting tap number and tongue-twister to open Act II, sung by Scuttle and his gulls.  The music is wonderfully clear and the songs bring bright and crisp voices to accentuate the wonderful lyrics of hope and humor.

Jesse Lynn Harte as Ariel and Jared Troilo* as Prince Eric share a moment of dance and love (Photo Courtesy of Fiddlehead Theatre Company/Eric Antoniou). *Denotes a member of Actors' Equity Association.

Jesse Lynn Harte as Ariel and Jared Troilo* as Prince Eric share a moment of dance and love (Photo Courtesy of Fiddlehead Theatre Company/Eric Antoniou). *Denotes a member of Actors' Equity Association.

The individual journeys for each of the characters, however, are where I found the most joy and praise.  Starting with an excellent scene aboard Prince Eric’s ship, we follow Jared Troilo’s voyage to find true love without compromising his self.  His soaring and beautiful voice is further highlighted in “Her Voice,” an ironic twist as he praises Ariel’s voice while his own voice excels.  His earnest portrayal of the young prince on the verge of adulthood and responsibility is gorgeously showcased in his excited rendition of “One Step Closer.”  Troilo makes Prince Eric a man worthy of the dreams of the Little Mermaid, and he creates a story worthy of our attention and respect.  Equally nuanced, Andrew Giordano’s King Triton is a father and ruler with conflicting emotions and influences, tenderly expressed in his musical speaking and singing voice.  With richness worthy of royalty, Giordano’s voice is one of the most expressive that I have heard, ranging from the warm bass to a full and supported tenor register.  He portrays a Triton who acts under false assumptions and rash conclusions, but with the best intentions and tender feelings underneath.  My only complaint is that Giordano didn’t have more material, especially singing, to bring his journey to our ears.  As we, as a country, struggle with some of the same prejudices and broken hearts, a performance like Giordano’s can help us empathize with these conflicted feelings and hopeful understanding of life’s possibilities and challenges.

Shana Dirik* as Ursula sings about the "Poor Unfortunate Souls" (Photo Courtesy of Fiddlehead Theatre Company/Eric Antoniou). * Denotes a member of Actors' Equity Association. 

Shana Dirik* as Ursula sings about the "Poor Unfortunate Souls" (Photo Courtesy of Fiddlehead Theatre Company/Eric Antoniou). * Denotes a member of Actors' Equity Association. 

Divine is channeled and accentuated by Shana Dirik as Ursula, the “wicked” antagonist in the musical and story.  But Dirik, always a masterful storyteller, brings a lighter touch to Ursula, a woman and sister who has been passed over in favor of men, and a person who seeks retribution by taking advantage of other people’s wishes.  Her Ursula is brazen, a little quirky, a creature at the end of her line with nothing to lose.  Dirik lets her voice ring in the cavernous hall with a belty rendition of “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” but it is her diction and clarity in both voice and acting that won my heart and soul, especially in her “Daddy’s Little Angel” and “I Want the Good Times Back.”  Her expert use of her range, her clever variations within her songs and dialogue, and her body language make her Ursula one for the books.  Jay Kelley’s Sebastian also rings true, finding an apt balance between the movie’s interpretation of the Jamaican crab and Kelley’s own rendition of the faithful and moral servant.  He brings soulful clarity to “Under the Sea” while touching a simpler melody in “Kiss the Girl.”  His reactions and chemistry with Giordano’s Triton and Harte’s Ariel, however, make him stand above the rest, capturing the conflicted creature between the two that he loves. Nice comedy and vocal inflections by Eddy Cavazos as Scuttle and Scott Caron as Flounder bring welcome touches to Wright’s dialogue.  Each earn hearty laughs from the audience, but don’t stray too far from the Disney original. Chris Pittman and Carl-Michale Ogle, as Flotsam and Jetsam, respectively, deliver sneaky and smarmy performances, though their voices didn’t quite ring as clear for the difficult harmonies in “Sweet Child.” An unexpectedly brilliant performance by Andy Papas as Chef Louis in “Les Poissons” brought the crowd almost to its feet during a zany scene involving a butcher knife and as escaped crab; his vocals were unparalleled, and I cannot wait to hear more from him.

Jesse Lynn Harte brings an innocence to her Ariel, the littlest mermaid.  Her authentic acting was a relief, when so many actresses would struggle to find the story in a naïve and curious young princess.  Her voice was tired in Act I, playing “Part of Your World” safe, but she had some beautiful moments in “Beyond My Wildest Dreams” and “If Only.” I am sure that with a bit of rest, her voice will ring in the Strand Theatre.  Her sisters bring a gorgeous array of characters to each of their scenes with the most interesting and diverse casting and portrayals during “Daughters of Triton” that I have yet seen.  Some of the ensemble songs felt a bit out of balance, not quite creating the right tone or sound for each song.  The score itself is not one of Disney’s best Broadway collection (I believe that that prize currently goes to Beauty and the Beast, but feel free to disagree), and the ensemble doesn’t quite get it right.  Luckily, this musical is filled with enough solos, duets, and small group numbers that you rarely notice this deficiency.

Andy Papas* as Chef Louis sings "Les Poissons" in his hilarious pursuit of a lost crab (Photo Courtesy of Fiddlehead Theatre CompaNY/ERIC ANTONIOU). * DENOTES A MEMBER OF ACTORS' EQUITY ASSOCIATION. 

Andy Papas* as Chef Louis sings "Les Poissons" in his hilarious pursuit of a lost crab (Photo Courtesy of Fiddlehead Theatre CompaNY/ERIC ANTONIOU). * DENOTES A MEMBER OF ACTORS' EQUITY ASSOCIATION. 

One of the most impressive parts of this production, however, is how fluidly the musical tells its stories.  From the sea level to the ocean floor to Prince Eric’s palace and back again, Director Stacey Stephens knows how to keep this story swimming at a steady pace, and he is helped by the brilliant Scenic Designer Mac Young and Technical Director David “Butch” Foley.  Together, they use flies and backdrops to transition the story with simple waves moving up and down.  The flying by Foy is almost completely on point, a surprising accuracy given the difficult technical demands chosen for this design.  The scenic and lighting design evoke the fairy tale original with softer, more subdued tones, instead of the more vibrant Disney colors used by many other productions. This choice gives the musical a more earthy and accessible feel; the action feels like it’s part of our world.  The costumes and hair, however, leave much to be desired.  Many of the character’s costumes felt like burdens to be borne, and few of the mermaids seemed comfortable with their accented tails, especially during even the simplest of choreographed movements under the sea.  Ariel’s wig seemed like it was washed with sea water, an authentic portrayal of spending years under water, but lacking some of the vibrancy of what we imagine a princess worthy of handsome Prince Eric.  Stephens uses giant fish attached to sticks to give the stage much-needed depth, a wonderful choice to fill the space.  Kira Cowan-Troilo’s choreography is a wonderful mix of styles, and the ensemble, particularly the sisters, makes good use of this movement to accentuate their characters.  The Gulls have a stand-out performance with the tap number, and I wish that Cowan-Troilo had more of an opportunity to showcase her deft ability to choreograph large ensembles in precise movement and stylized choreography.

Fiddlehead Theatre Company’s Disney’s The Little Mermaid is everything that you hope for in this musical stage adaptation, and more.  With standout performances by Jared Troilo as the dashing and exciting Prince Eric, Andrew Giordano as the musical and complex King Triton, Shana Dirik as the expressive and hilarious Ursula, Jay Kelley as the steady Sebastian, and Andy Papas as scene-stealer Chef Louis, this production is stacked from the shore to the ocean floor.  Director Stacey Stephens and his cast exceed expectations in their rich understanding of these characters’ stories and journeys, and they play their parts to equal laughs and heartaches.  Their calculated risk-taking in this beloved fairy tale made this production a holiday treat for both the experienced and the young, a clever storytelling with gorgeous music to fill this beautiful theatre. Fiddlehead Theatre Company continues to bring top-notch talent, especially when they follow their hearts, to underserved communities, creating award-worthy performances at affordable and accessible prices and venues.

Disney’s The Little Mermaid runs until December 6, 2015, at The Strand Theatre in Dorchester’s Upham’s Corner, located at 543 Columbia Road.  A free trolley service runs to and from the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel, available by reservation only.  Tickets are available at www.fiddleheadtheatre.com with special discounts for seniors, students, and Dorchester residents.