The Little Mermaid: In Defense of Disney

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Joan Marcus / Boneau / Bryan-Brown / AP

Sierra Boggess as Ariel in The Little Mermaid on Broadway.

Once again, we face the Disney problem. Or rather, I face the Disney problem. With every new show that Disney has presented on Broadway since its acclaimed breakthrough hit The Lion King, I have to fight back the urge to review the reviewers instead of the show. The trouble, to oversimplify just a bit: I like most Disney shows; the critics hate 'em.

The complaints have become as predictable as the patter for the villain's henchmen in a Disney cartoon: Disney shows are too big, too commercial, too over-marketed — not real theater so much as bloated "theme park" extravaganzas that only children and undiscriminating tourists could love (though the criticism of Disney's last show, Mary Poppins, was somewhat different; the critics found it too heavy, not theme-parky enough.) Disney's latest offering — The Little Mermaid, based on Disney's 1989 animated hit, which opened at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theatre last week — has received the usual fusillade. "Washed Up on Broadway," and "Run for the Lifeboats," ran the New York tabloid headlines. The Times' Ben Brantley, the Scar of the grump brigade, said he "loathed" the whole wretched thing, including even the one aspect of Disney shows that usually wins a grudging cheer, its scenic design. "The whole enterprise," the Times critic sniffed, "is soaked in that sparkly garishness that only a very young child — or possibly a tackiness-worshiping drag queen — might find pretty."

That sort of thing makes me wonder whether the critics are actually sitting in the same theater I am. In fact, the show is notably lacking in sparkles, and garish is just about the last word I would use to describe the subtle and airy visual design. A gorgeous color palette of pastel blues, oranges and pinks. Translucent, lighter-than-air panels, billowing plastic waves, scepter-like deep-sea sculptures, which manage to convey not just one undersea world but a host of neighborhoods within that world. Costumes that manage to be both lush and witty — the exaggerated, bunched-crinoline hoop skirts on the court ladies, for example, made me laugh out loud. All in all, it was one of the most ravishing things I have ever seen on a Broadway stage. For the record, I am not a drag queen.

But The Little Mermaid is more than just a visual feast. In fact, I think it comes closer than any Disney show since The Lion King to combining story, song and inventive staging into something that lifts our spirits and renews our faith that theater for "children" can be enjoyed by everyone. Acclaimed opera director Francesca Zambello, doing her first Broadway show, can't match Julie Taymor's innovative staging in The Lion King (but then, who can — not even Taymor since then), but she has the same inventive, less-is-more, determinedly theatrical approach. Instead of wires and pulleys or complicated stage effects to simulate the undersea life, she simply equips her fishy characters with wheelies, which enable them, when they rock back on their heels, to glide across the stage with an ease that nicely approximates aquatic movement. And for the couple of times when characters actually do float — swimming up to the surface or sinking to the ocean floor — the effort is largely hidden, the effect breathtaking.

The Little Mermaid doesn't capture all the charms of the 1989 movie, which really launched Disney's latter-day renaissance in animation. The story about Ariel, a mermaid who longs to be human and trades in her voice for a chance at the prince of her dreams, is fleshed out with some uninspired back-story for the prince. The film's great, calypso-style "Under the Sea" number doesn't have quite the bounce it did on screen. And Ariel's Jiminy Cricket-like sidekick, the Jamaican-accented Sebastian the crab, isn't nearly as funny when robbed of the film's witty animation (despite Tituss Burgess's best efforts in the role).

But the story itself has more romantic resonance than some of the more self-important Disney tales. Hans Christian Andersen gets a lot of the credit for that, but book writer Doug Wright (Grey Gardens, I Am My Own Wife) at least managed not to screw it up. Composer Alan Menken (with Glenn Slater replacing the late Howard Ashman as lyricist) has added several catchy new songs to his already fine score; the Broadway-razzmatazz number in which the Ursula, the sea witch (a sharp Sherie Renee Scott), celebrates her evil ways, "I Want the Good Times Back," would have made the Devil in Damn Yankees jealous. The young newcomer who plays Ariel, Sierra Boggess, gets to show off a pretty voice and, once she loses it, some pretty good pantomime skills too.

Yes, it's a fairy tale, aimed chiefly at children. But would it be rude to ask why Broadway's fairy tales for adults (Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls) can become musical theater classics while the ones directed at kids become critical dartboards? Or to point out that most of the children's theater I've seen in the past few years has had more theatrical verve and originality than most of the serious stuff I've had to sit through on Broadway? Or to wish, just once, that Disney might get a little credit for recruiting some of the most adventurous theater artists in the world to bring new ideas in staging and storytelling to a mass theater audience, kids and adults alike?

Or am I still trapped in a fairy tale?