Disney’s The Little Mermaid at Westchester Playhouse
Kentwood Players, a talented community theater ensemble, brings one of my favorite Disney movies to the stage in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Fun for the whole family, the theatrical version of The Little Mermaid expands on the Disney animated film and bursts to life with spirited performers and gorgeous costumes.
On the Water’s Surface
Everyone knows the story of headstrong Ariel, a mermaid who falls in love with a human. She trades her magnificent voice to sea witch (and octopus) Ursula in exchange for human legs, and three days in which to get the human, Prince Eric, to fall in love with – and kiss – her. If Ariel does not succeed in romance, her soul will be in Ursula’s control forever.
Swim a Little Deeper
Looking back on the 1989 Disney film today, several issues can be construed as problematic, especially during 2018 and its #metoo movement. Thankfully, this version of the story updates some of those antiquated ideas for a new generation of young girls. For instance, while it is alluded to that Ariel is young, it is never specified just how young she is (16 in the film), and Eric’s age has been raised from 18 to 21 in this adaptation. Even though it’s not a huge change, raising the age is a step in the right direction.
Another empowering update is that the theatrical production gives Ariel more agency in the narrative. SPOILERS: While Eric defeats Ursula in the Disney film, Ariel is the one who saves her father and destroys Ursula on stage. And when Eric asks King Triton for Ariel’s hand in marriage, Triton responds, “Ask her. She can speak for herself.” This encourages the young girls watching to speak up for themselves and what they want, a moral that the Disney movie lacks.
Under the Sea
Ariel, more of the straight (wo)man surrounded by colorful characters, is played by Lyndsay Palmer (Sister Act: The Musical). She exudes sweetness and hope despite the odds, but I could have used a little more stubbornness and defiance. Palmer’s soprano soars in new songs “The World Above,” the charming “Beyond My Wildest Dreams,” and of course “Part of Your World.” It is also delightful to watch Palmer’s facial expressions once she is without her voice – beautiful comedic timing. Aaron Eberhardt’s Prince Eric is a down-to-Earth romantic, and he absolutely shined while connecting with Ariel in “One Step Closer.” The sassy and evil Ursula is brought to conniving life by Kim Peterson, who nailed the notes as well as the tricky magical words in the always-fun “Poor Unfortunate Souls.”
In smaller but definitely memorable roles, Lynn Gutstadt and Erika Brauer’s eels, Flotsam and Jetsam, slink around the stage, hissing and delighting with their antics. Kelsey Weinstein gets to show off her singing and tap-dancing skills as kooky seagull Scuttle; Sadie Fisher brings a quiet innocence to lovelorn Flounder; and Rocky Miller boasts a beautiful operatic voice as Chef Louis. However, the biggest surprise for me was Roy Okida as Sebastian. Previously seen in bit parts in other Kentwood Players’ productions like The Crucible, he is perfectly cast as the crabby crab trying to keep Ariel out of harm’s way. He skitters across the stage in side-steps to hilarious effect, and brings a sincerity to his empathy and concern for Ariel. The ensemble dazzles as an array of mermaids, sailors and various sea creatures – all with enthusiasm and heart.
Although there were a few technical glitches during the show I attended, the production as a whole is quite impressive. With beautifully-painted, rotating backdrops, the set is able to quickly and efficiently transform into different locations. A folding platform is able to open into Ariel’s treasure trove of trinkets, or close to hide them when not needed. However, the stand-out, in my opinion, is Kim Peterson’s costume design. From Ursula’s octopus skirt, to Flotsam and Jetsam’s body-encompassing, light-up eel puppets, to the mermaid sisters’ sequin tails and matching colorful wigs, I was floored. Every time a new sea creature entered the stage, I’m sure the people next to me could hear my audible gasps of delight. I especially got a kick out of the various characters helping out with “Kiss the Girl,” and the handful of feathery seagulls, complete with tap shoes beneath their bird feet.
In expanding the story for a full-length musical production, Disney’s The Little Mermaid has even more songs than the movie, some working better than others despite all being sung well. I adored the addition of Scuttle’s tap-dancing song, “Positoovity,” as well as “She’s In Love,” by Flounder and Ariel’s sisters. However, “If Only (Quartet)” and the “Les Poissons” reprise slow down the real action. I appreciate giving Eric and Ursula more stage time, but “Her Voice” and “Daddy’s Little Angel,” respectively, can’t compare with classics like “Under the Sea” and “Part of Your World.”
Directed by Catherine Rahm, Kentwood Players have done a fine job bringing the classic The Little Mermaid to life with vivid performances, stunning costumes and infectious music. With welcome narrative updates, Ariel can now stand on her own two feet, so to speak, as a confident young woman that girls can look up to. Come for the classic you know, and stay for the newfound revelations that Kentwood Players present with aplomb. In a time when neighbors are divided, the whole family can enjoy a show that bridges differences with love and optimism. Disney’s The Little Mermaid is a breath of fresh air, and hopeful for a more united tomorrow.