Iconic musical’s power emerges despite shadowy challenges

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The cast of Les Miserables asks for “One Day More.” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

It’s when the latest incarnation of Les Misérables nears the halfway point that it begins hitting its stride. It’s then that we’re introduced to a group of young revolutionaries whose faith in their cause adds new layers of tragedy and nobility to the tale. The production builds from there to a climax that is just as glorious and moving as it was meant to be.

In the early scenes, however, this telling of fugitive Jean Valjean’s struggles has quirks that limit its effectiveness. Based on a 2014 Broadway revival and directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, the touring production incorporates scenery based on paintings by the tale’s original author, Victor Hugo. But it also employs a lighting design (by Paule Constable) so dark that it’s hard enough to see the actors, let alone the scenery behind them.

This is not so much a problem for those of us who’ve seen the musical multiple times, but it might discourage first-time viewers. Particularly during the fast-paced first act, they could well struggle to keep up as the story races from one dramatic development to the next.

For those who aren’t familiar with the tale, Les Miz takes place in 19th-century France and centers on Jean Valjean, who was imprisoned for 19 years simply because he stole a loaf of bread. Released on parole as the show opens, he struggles against his own bitterness—as well as the suspicion that greets a former convict—until a clergyman’s generosity allows him to reinvent himself. He then pledges himself to a life of helping others, but he’s forever dogged by a police official named Javert who’s determined to bring him to justice for breaking parole.

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Nick Cartell (right) as Jean Valjean and Josh Davis as his nemesis, Javert

Drenched in pathos and death, the Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schonberg blockbuster is admittedly melodramatic, but it succeeds on the strength of the achingly beautiful songs penned by composer Schonberg and lyricist Herbert Kretzmer. That is, it succeeds when the cast does the songs justice.

What bothers me more than the current production’s dark lighting is that male leads Nick Cartell (Jean Valjean) and Josh Davis (Javert) sometimes make the melodies subservient to the drama—that is, they shout rather than sing the words. It’s an ill-advised technique that means we get only approximations of some of the most gorgeous songs in the musical-theater canon.

Fortunately, both actors have strong moments when they skip the shouting. Cartell displays his fine voice on the falsetto showcase “Bring Him Home” and makes Valjean an increasingly sympathetic figure as the show progresses. As for Davis, he has a limited voice that keeps him from being one of the all-time great Javerts, but he turns the Act I solo “Stars” into a near-showstopper on the force of will alone.

There are parts of the musical that are guaranteed some degree of success no matter how well they’re staged: the plight of single mom Fantine (Mary Kate Moore), say, or the comic antics of those conniving innkeepers, the Thenardiers (Allison Guinn and Jimmy Smagula). It’s when the plot hops several years into the future and introduces new characters such as the aforementioned student revolutionaries that Les Miz sometimes struggles to regain its footing.

Luckily, that’s exactly when the touring production comes into its own.

From this point, the scenery of Matt Kinley begins emerging from the shadows: a silhouetted barricade, a sewer system that appears to arise magically from the stage. The former is the setting for a legitimately horrific battle, complete with the sounds of musket fire and whistling bullets, as the young rebels take a stand against repression.

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Enjolras (Matt Shingledecker) entreats his fellow malcontents to rebel against the government.

The characters introduced at this time are all brought vividly to life by accomplished actors: Brett Stoelker (filling in for Matt Shingledecker on opening night) as rebel leader Enjolras; Phoenix Best as the Thenardiers’ lovestruck daughter, Eponine; Robbie Crandell and Jasper Davenport alternating in the role of plucky street urchin Gavroche. Among the strongest are Jillian Butler as Valjean’s orphaned ward, Cosette; and Joshua Grosso as Marius, the rebel who falls for her. Their sweet voices and sincere delivery make us believe in love at first sight.

Hope in the power of love despite overwhelming adversity: That’s the final message of Les Misérables, and it still comes through as clearly as ever.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Les Misérables Nov. 19-24 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 3 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $79-$150+ (regular or verified resale). 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Musicalized high school comedy deserves a passing grade

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Cady (Danielle Wade, left) gets to know Regina (Mariah Rose Faith, second from right) and her fellow “Plastics” in the first national tour of Mean Girls. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

By Richard Ades

Tina Fey’s satirical wit comes across in everything she does, whether it’s Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock or the clever 2004 flick she wrote and co-starred in, Mean Girls. It also comes across in the musical version of the flick, now holding forth at the Ohio Theatre.

It comes across eventually, that is. The stage show is encumbered by several songs and dances that seem to be copied from the Broadway playbook, especially in the early scenes. But by the time the darkly comic plot kicks into gear, Fey’s distinctive voice is clearly heard.

Mean Girls is the story of Cady Heron (Danielle Wade), an American teen who was born and raised in Kenya but must move to the U.S. when her mother’s job is relocated. Since Cady has been homeschooled all her life, she feels doubly out of place when she stumbles into her first day at a Chicago high school.

Luckily for her, outcasts Damien and Janis (Eric Huffman and Mary Kate Morrissey) take it on themselves to lead her through the school’s minefield of a social scene. They describe each clique in detail, but they save their sternest caution for the “Plastics,” a trio of divas led by Regina (Mariah Rose Faith), an alpha female whose beauty and viciousness make her a figure of both envy and fear.

Despite their warnings, Cady lets herself be courted by the haughty group, which also includes the needy Gretchen (Megan Masako Haley) and the hilariously dense Karen (Jonalyn Saxer). She soon learns the hard way that Regina is just as evil as she’s been told. She also learns, too late, that the Plastics’ shallow, self-centered lifestyle is dangerously addictive.

What makes Cady such a perfect guide into Fey’s version of high school purgatory is that she’s a tabula rasa. Raised in a land of beast-filled savannahs and star-filled skies, she knows nothing of a society where friends and social media “likes” are touted as signs of popularity. She also knows nothing about boys or the lengths to which girls will go to capture their attention, including downplaying their own intelligence. Most of all, she knows nothing of the cutthroat competition girls sometimes wage with each other out of insecurity and jealousy.

All of this comes across in the musical just as it did on the big screen, though not quite as succinctly. Jeff Richmond’s music, Nell Benjamin’s lyrics and Casey Nicholaw’s choreography sometimes create numbers that seem to be straight out of Broadway Musical 101. The most self-conscious is “Stop,” the tap number that opens Act 2. Though entertainingly performed by Huffman’s Damien and a group of backup dancers, it seems too old-hat to belong in a modern high school.

More up to date, even though it does little to advance the plot, is the hip-hop-inspired “Whose House Is This?” And more creative is the Act 1 number “Where Do You Belong?”—which is fun despite “choreography” that largely consists of pushing tables and chairs around a lunchroom.

Best of all are the numbers that encapsulate the message of Fey’s cautionary tale. Among them are Janis and Cady’s “Apex Predator,” with its James Bond-like blares, and the uplifting finale, “I See Stars.”

Mean Girls has arrived in Columbus remarkably fast: It opened on Broadway only a year and a half ago and began its first national tour just last month. Despite the speed, the show at the Ohio is technologically polished. Director Nicholaw, scenic designer Scott Pask, lighting designer Kenneth Posner and others have joined forces to create a production that changes times and locales both colorfully and instantaneously.

More importantly, the cast is nearly perfect from both an acting and singing standpoint. Huffman is an early standout as Damian, despite playing a character that is little more than a gay stereotype. Among those making an impression in smaller roles are Adante Carter as Cady’s math-class crush and Gaelen Gilliland as her supportive teacher.

As for the leads, Wade makes us believe the huge metamorphoses Cady undergoes in the course of the show, while Faith actually leaves us feeling sorry for Regina after her fortunes change.

Well, just a little. It’s still nice to see at least one “mean girl” get a taste of her own medicine.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Mean Girls through Oct. 27 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $39-$139+. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Personable monarch informs new staging of ‘The King and I’

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The King of Siam (Jose Llana) and Anna Leonowens (Elena Shaddow) take a spin around the dance floor in The King and I. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

By Richard Ades

When theater companies want to bring new life to a familiar work, they often rely on obvious changes. A recent example is Opera Columbus’s production of Gluck’s Orphee et Eurydice, with its surreal scenery, avant-garde instrumentation and virtual chorus. And, of course, there are any number of Shakespearean productions that move the action to a different locale, time period or both.

The Lincoln Center Theater and director Bartlett Sher take a different tack with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. The musical is still set in Siam (now Thailand) in the 1860s and still focuses on the evolving relationship between an authoritarian king and a widowed British teacher who’s hired to tutor his many children. But there’s a subtle difference from earlier productions, and certainly from the 1956 movie starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brenner.

It mainly can be found in the character of the king. As wonderfully played by Jose Llana, he is imperious and comically petulant, yet he’s also vulnerable and even sympathetic. We understand that he’s concerned for his country’s future, not wanting it to become a European protectorate like some of his neighbors. Though he has hired a British governess to teach his children, he comes to rely on her to help him modernize—basically, to Westernize—his country in order to convince Europe that Siam doesn’t need “protecting.”

As governess Anna Leonowens, Elena Shaddow is a charming mixture of politeness and stubborn determination. Though her Victorian upbringing makes it hard for her to accept the king’s polygamy, she does her best to get along with her royal employer. However, she refuses to bend on one matter: the king’s promise, which he seems to have conveniently forgotten, to provide her and her son, Louis (Rhyees Stump), with a home of their own.

The production opens with a gorgeous scene, courtesy of set designer Michael Yeargan and lighting designer Donald Holder: the sunset arrival of the ship that brings Anna and Louis to Bangkok. After that, the scenery is far more restrained, with the outline of the palace walls in the background and long curtains playing a big role in delineating the change from one location to the next. It’s what goes on in front of the scenery that makes this staging so special.

Besides Anna and the king, key characters include Prime Minister Kralahome (Brian Rivera); the king’s head wife, Lady Thiang (Jane Almedilla); and Prince Chulalongkorn (Charlie Oh), his oldest son. Adding a dark subplot is the young and beautiful Tuptim (Q Lim), a “gift” from Burma who is forced to submit to the king’s advances despite being in love with another man, Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao).

Fine voices give some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most beloved tunes their due, including Anna’s “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Getting to Know You” and Anna and the king’s “Shall We Dance?” Panmeechao’s thin tones are a slight impediment to Lun Tha’s wistful duets with Tuptim, “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.” On the other hand, Almedilla’s matronly voice only adds depth to the show’s most touching number, Lady Thiang’s “Something Wonderful.”

A large orchestra consisting mostly of local musicians (who, for a change, are actually named in the program) performs under Gerald Steichen’s baton. Christopher Gattelli’s adaptation of Jerome Robbins’s original choreography is especially delightful during Act 2’s prolonged ballet, a Siamese take on Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

“Delightful” is a good adjective for the show in general, along with “illuminating” and “amazing.” And, hopefully, “unmissable.”

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present The King and I April 24-29 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $34-$109+. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com. For information on future tour stops, visit thekinganditour.com.

If this doesn’t raise your spirits, the Nazis win

Scene from An American in Paris, presented by Broadway in Columbus (Photos by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

Love is more important than art, a character proclaims during a key moment from An American in Paris. While that’s undoubtedly true, it’s art that makes the musical so memorable.

Christopher Wheeldon’s direction and choreography combine with Bob Crowley’s set and costumes, Natasha Katz’s lighting and, most of all, George and Ira Gershwin’s ageless jazz tunes to create multiple gifts for the eyes and ears. As for the love story at its center, it mostly amounts to the colorless glue that holds it all together.

Based on the 1951 film about an American (Gene Kelly) who woos a reluctant Frenchwoman (Leslie Caron), the musical took an unconventional path to its 2015 Broadway premiere. It debuted in late 2014 in Paris, where it created a stir despite the language barrier. In addition to its glorious musical numbers, Parisians likely were attracted to its rejiggered plot and setting.

Book writer Craig Lucas moves the tale back to 1945, when the City of Light is struggling to regain its spirit after the dark years of Nazi occupation. Memories of the war affect two central characters in different ways: Jewish American composer Adam Hochberg (Matthew Scott) is so traumatized that he can write only dirges that fit in with his gloomy view of life. In contrast, Frenchman Henri Baurel (Ben Michael) is determined to move beyond his own war experiences by fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a song-and-dance man.

Unbeknownst to them, Adam and Henri are united by their mutual love of a ballet dancer named Lise Dassin (Allison Walsh). Nor do they know that Lise has a third admirer in the form of American G.I.-turned-artist Jerry Mulligan (McGee Maddox). Complicating things even further, Jerry attracts the attention of wealthy benefactor Milo Davenport (Kirsten Scott), who clearly expects sexual favors in return for her valuable patronage.

McGee Maddox and Allison Walsh as Jerry and Lise, the characters played by Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in the original 1951 film version 

Jerry and Lise are the people we’re supposed to care about the most, so it’s disappointing that Maddox and Walsh generate so few romantic sparks. Making up for this in spades, both are lithe dancers and competent singers, as they prove over and over again throughout. (Note: Kyle Robinson fills in as Jerry on Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening, while Deanna Doyle plays Lise during the Sunday matinee.)

More interesting than the two romantic leads are the dramatic arcs undergone by Adam and Henri, particularly during Act 2. In fact, the second act surpasses its predecessor in terms of both drama and spectacle.

Two late-arriving song-and-dance numbers are alone worth the price of admission: “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” led by Henri and Adam; and “An American in Paris,” a surreally amazing piece featuring Lise, her ballet partner (Kevin A. Cosculluela) and the rest of the company. Both are complemented by set designer Crowley’s most sublime creations and the Gershwins’ most powerful melodies.

Other classic tunes include “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “’S Wonderful” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” All are accompanied in a full-throated style by a massive band conducted by David Andrews Rogers.

After premiering on Broadway in early 2015, An American in Paris won Tonys for its choreography, lighting, orchestration and scenic design. The touring version excels in those same areas, making it an awe-inspiring experience for anyone who ventures to the Ohio Theatre this week.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present An American in Paris through March 11 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State, Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $31-$104. 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

What do ‘Waitress’ and ‘The Band’s Visit’ have in common?

Desi Oakley, Charity Angel Dawson and Lenne Klingaman (from left) in the Broadway in Columbus presentation of Waitress (photo by Joan Marcus)

By Richard Ades

The transition from the screen to the stage is a tricky one. There have been a few triumphs, but the results are more often disappointing.

The latest film adaptation is The Band’s Visit, a musical that recently moved to Broadway after a successful off-Broadway run. Tony Shalhoub (TV’s Monk) and Katrina Lenk lead a uniformly strong cast, and David Cromer’s sensitive direction captures the cross-cultural discomfort that develops when an Egyptian police band unexpectedly shows up in a remote Israeli village. On top of that, David Yazbek’s music and lyrics are delightful.

Despite the musical’s strengths, I left the Ethel Barrymore Theatre feeling less satisfied than I was after seeing the 2007 Israeli movie on which it’s based. The stage production attempts to create dramatic arcs by playing up several elements of the story, especially the flirtation that Lenk’s restaurant owner directs toward Shalhoub’s uptight band director. It does this at the expense of the little interactions that, in the film, mark the Israelis and the Egyptians as fellow travelers on the sad, lonely journey known as life. The stage show is good, but it lacks its predecessor’s understated charm.

Would I have liked the show more if I hadn’t seen the film? Possibly. So maybe it’s good that I didn’t catch another 2007 movie, Waitress, before seeing its musical adaptation this week at the Ohio Theatre. The late Adrienne Shelly’s flick has been faulted for diluting a story of female empowerment with broad humor, and the stage production likely broadens the humor even more.

The heroine is Jenna (the relatable Desi Oakley), a small-town waitress married to a control freak named Earl (the effectively hateful Nick Bailey). Jenna is desperate to escape from her loveless marriage, but her hopes are dashed when she learns she’s pregnant.

Ironically, her pregnancy leads her to Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart), a gynecologist who instantly falls for both her and the stellar pies she concocts for the restaurant. Taken off guard by the unfamiliar experience of being appreciated for who she is, Jenna begins an affair with the kind, though married, doctor. Meanwhile, she sets her sights on a pie-making contest whose prize money could bankroll a new life for her and her future child.

As long as the focus stays on Jenna and her miserable situation, Waitress serves as a sobering look at the serious issue of spousal abuse. However, book writer Jessie Nelson and director Diane Paulus seem determined to keep the crowds pleased by devoting much of the show’s time and energy to broad comedy populated by familiar stereotypes.

Jenna’s fellow waitresses are Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) and Dawn (Lenne Klingaman). The former is sassy (i.e., she’s black), and the latter is shy and nerdy (i.e., she wears glasses). In subplots that largely overshadow the main plot, Becky launches into an affair of her own, while Dawn attempts to end her social isolation by running a personal ad. This attracts the attention of Ogie, an oddball exuberantly played by Jeremy Morse with overtones of Paul Lynde and Henry Gibson, the poet from TV’s Laugh-In. Ogie’s comic solo number, Never Ever Getting Rid of Me, becomes the closest thing the musical has to a show stopper.

Roaming even further from Jenna’s homefront predicament, the proceedings nearly turn into a sex farce when all three waitresses and their respective beaus simultaneously engage in onstage canoodling. Diner manager Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin) and elderly owner Joe (Larry Marshall) also contribute to the show’s sexual preoccupation, though the latter does so only by sharing his erotic memories.

The mood finally turns sober again just in time for Jenna’s biggest and saddest solo, She Used to Be Mine, sung with the kind of strong and committed voice Oakley brings to all of her songs. In fact, composer/lyricist Sara Bareilles’s tunes are well served by the entire cast and by conductor/pianist Jenny Cartney and her onstage band. But none of this makes up for the fact that the pop/country melodies are mostly forgettable and the lyrics seldom rise to the level of deep poetry.

Despite its inconsistencies and weaknesses, Waitress remains on Broadway after a year and a half, suggesting that it satisfies patrons’ theatrical taste buds. And it did seem to make many people happy at the Ohio on Tuesday, despite a technical snafu that delayed the show long enough to turn it into a 3½-hour ordeal.

So if the idea of spicing up a serious social issue with broad comedy doesn’t give you acid reflux, you, too, may find Waitress to your liking.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Waitress through Sunday (Nov. 12) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $34-$115. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Carole King musical is a tapestry of nostalgic sights and sounds

Julia Knitel as Carole King in the Broadway in Columbus/CAPA presentation of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Photos by Joan Marcus)

By Richard Ades

Pop memories mix with Broadway pizzazz in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

The titular singer-songwriter won multiple Grammys in 1971 with Tapestry, an album that voiced the joys, fears and regrets of an entire generation. Beautiful, a jukebox musical written by Douglas McGrath, explains how King became the person who created the iconic work.

The journey begins when King (winningly played by Julia Knitel) is a precocious 16-year-old who’s determined to forge a career writing pop songs. Despite multiple rejections, she persuades her mom (Alaina Mills) to let her try one more time by taking her latest tune to a recording studio on Times Square.

There she meets two men who will play crucial roles in her career: record producer Don Kirshner (James Clow), who is won over by her pop lament It Might as Well Rain Until September; and Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin), a lyricist who quickly becomes her partner in music and in life.

In most jukebox musicals, the plot exists only to tie together a slew of popular songs. In Beautiful, the plot exists to explain how those songs came to be. Because King’s tunes have so much emotional resonance for those who grew up with them, the story has built-in appeal. We want to know what turned this nerdy, self-effacing teen into the older but wiser, sadder but stronger talent who poured her aching heart out in Tapestry.

In the touring show, that appeal helps to make up for a central relationship that seems iffy from the start because Tobin’s Goffin comes across as someone who is as self-absorbed as he is brilliant. King may think he’s worth the effort, but viewers are apt to be less convinced.

Gathered around the piano (from left): Curt Bouril as Don Kirshner, Liam Tobin as Gerry Goffin, Julia Knitel as Carole King, Ben Fankhauser as Barry Mann and Erika Olson as Cynthia Weil

Oddly, it’s easier to root for another songwriting couple who become friendly competitors to King and Goffin. Lyricist Cynthia Weil (Erika Olson) is sassy and sarcastic, while composer Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser) is a lovable hypochondriac. The two create both laughs and romantic sparks whenever they’re onstage.

Under Marc Bruni’s direction, the show flows smoothly and efficiently from one scene or song to the next. Derek McLane’s scenery, Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting and Alejo Vietti’s costumes combine to create stage pictures that are both glitzy and elegant. The production numbers are particularly gorgeous and benefit from Josh Prince’s choreography, which often parodies moves favored by early groups such as the Shirelles and the Drifters (both of which make guest “appearances”).

My personal favorite among the production numbers: the Drifters’ rendition of On Broadway, one of the Weil-Mann hits. But there are many other musical moments, both big and intimate, that will tempt viewers to sing along. (But don’t, please—you’ll get your chance during the curtain call.)

My only musical complaint is that Knitel sometimes strays from the well-known King melodies, as if trying to make them her own. Since she’s playing King, she really ought to stick to the original notes. Overall, though, she vocalizes beautifully, often capturing the singer’s timbre without doing an outright impersonation. The rest of the cast sings equally well and is expertly backed up by conductor Susan Draus and her band.

Beautiful may not hit as many emotional moments as it could, but it lives up to its name both visually and aurally while delivering a nutritious serving of nostalgia.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Beautiful: The Carole King Musical through Sunday (June 11) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $39-$246. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, broadway.columbus.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Musical mermaid yearns for love in Disney do-over

Diana Huey as Ariel in the touring production of The Little Mermaid, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (Photo by Mark & Tracy Photography)
Diana Huey as Ariel in the touring production of The Little Mermaid, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (Photos by Mark & Tracy Photography)

By Richard Ades

In mythic lore, mermaids were seductive creatures whose haunting voices lured sailors to their deaths. In modern times, The Little Mermaid lured Disney to one of its rare stumbles: a 2008 Broadway musical that failed to reclaim the magic of the company’s 1989 animated flick. The production garnered so-so reviews and sank a year and a half later.

Now, in a salvage operation consisting of a complete overhaul, Disney has relaunched the tale in a touring show that corrects most of the original production’s faults. It’s still no Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, but it’s a likable show that should keep parents and their young princes and princesses entertained.

Directed by Glenn Casale, the show uses cables and Kenneth Foy’s modest but attractive scenery to re-create the title character’s underwater world. The cables allow Ariel (Diana Huey) and others to “swim” through the domain ruled by her father, King Triton (Steve Blanchard). In scenes set at the surface or edge of the ocean, they allow her feathered friend Scuttle (Jamie Torcellini) to “fly.”

Though much has changed in the way the tale is told, the basic plot remains the same: Ariel is a teenage mermaid who has long been fascinated by humans despite her father’s claim that they’re barbarians who murdered her mother. Her fascination blossoms into a full-blown crush when she spies the seagoing Prince Eric (Matthew Kacergis) and subsequently saves his life when he falls overboard in a sudden storm.

Determined to meet the handsome Eric (who was unconscious when she pulled him from the sea), she makes a Faustian bargain with her evil aunt, Ursula (Jennifer Allen): Ariel will become human, but she will forfeit her soul unless she can persuade the prince to kiss her within three days. In addition, she will immediately lose her voice. That’s unfortunate for her, because Eric has fallen in love with the singing voice he heard before the storm and is determined to find and marry its owner.

Jennifer Allen as the villainous Ursula
Jennifer Allen as the villainous Ursula

Though The Little Mermaid lacks the emotional depth of the best Disney musicals, it partially makes up for it by throwing in a boatload of humor. Scuttle’s misuse of the English language is a bit forced, but Allen’s tentacled and self-amused Ursula is good for chuckles. Funnier still is a scene in which a French chef (Dane Stokinger) prepares a meal by smashing deceased sea creatures with various kitchen utensils.

As Ariel, Huey is most successful at portraying the humorous side of puppy (guppy?) love, especially after the mermaid transforms into a human. In the sea, she’s often overshadowed by the more colorful characters around her, but on land, she’s amusingly awkward as Ariel struggles to deal with an unfamiliar body and emotions. (It’s probably unnecessary to point out that the former mermaid’s struggles symbolically parallel what the average girl goes through during her teen years.)

Despite the emphasis on comedy, The Little Mermaid’s biggest strengths are the tunes penned by composer Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater. Sebastian (Melvin Abston), a crab who becomes Ariel’s protector, makes the most of two popular holdovers from the movie: Under the Sea and Kiss the Girl. Huey’s lovely voice soars on Ariel solos such as Part of Your World, while Kacergis displays the production’s strongest pipes on Eric’s numbers Her Voice and One Step Closer.

One element of the plot could use further honing: The inevitable happy ending comes about thanks to a sudden development that left both me and my date scratching our heads. Otherwise, The Little Mermaid—both the title character and the revised telling of her story—offers an inspiring lesson on the value of perseverance.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Disney’s The Little Mermaid through Sunday (Feb. 5) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $29-$94. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, broadway.columbus.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.