(A review of Asia’s The Little Mermaid by Atlantis Productions)
originally published in BusinessWorld Weekender, December 2-4, 2011
THEATER REVIEW The Little Mermaid Presented by Atlantis Productions Until Dec. 11 Meralco Theater, Ortigas Ave., Pasig
When The Little Mermaid opened on Broadway in January of 2008 amid high expectations and fanfare, it was met by a surprisingly uneven mix of reviews from critics and viewers alike. Those who liked it praised it for its inventiveness and unique take on underwater settings; those who didn’t, well, let’s just say that “garish,” “plastic,” and “too busy” were some of the kinder words used.
No wonder then that while Beauty and the Beast ran for 5,464 performances between 1994 and 2007, making it the eighth-longest running production in Broadway, and The Lion King is still being played on Broadway and in many other parts of the world (eclipsing Beauty and the Beast to become seventh in Broadway’s list), The Little Mermaid has found very limited success among the Disney musicals on theater.
Atlantis Productions must be made of stern stuff to undertake a production with a spotty history, and even braver to mount it despite the limited finances we all know local theaters have. If Disney and the Broadway giants could not make the whole play work perfectly despite their reportedly USD15 million budget, then what could we Filipinos possibly come up with to avoid a shameful dud?
It seems that directors Bobby Garcia and Chari Arespacochaga have found their solution in simplicity. By stripping the play of its extraneous eye candy and concentrating heavily on good music and acting, they have resuscitated a once moribund play and given it fresh life. Then, too, by the ingenious use of puppetry and the creative play of light and shadows, they have taken the flying wire harnesses and pulleys out of the equation and notched up more points for creativity than mechanical stagecraft could have ever done.
This is not to say, however, that The Little Mermaid has gone completely minimalist and done away with the traditional (and almost required) Disney WOW factor. On the contrary, Asia’s The Little Mermaid has simply learned to use it more sparingly, on scenes that really count, and as such, when done right, the effect is masterful.
In contrast, the costumes are fabulously far from simple. Mr. Eric Pineda, the company’s costume designer, has come up with highly inspired designs that channel Asian influences and yet make them universal in appeal. Thus, Ariel, the Little Mermaid, sports Imeldific butterfly sleeves made to look like shells and King Triton chucks his white locks, manly beard, and Nordic looks in favor of a Balinese king’s regal bearing. Sebastian, the hermit crab who serves as Ariel’s reluctant guardian, no longer looks like a red version of Jiminy Cricket but a proper decapod crustacean decked in a Thai “chada.” The sea witch, Ursula, who is part woman and part octopus (what is known as a cecaelia) sports a most intricate costume that not only lights up in the dark but can open and expand like the tentacles of a real octopus. Add the costumes for Flotsam and Jetsam- painted spandex suits that incorporate eel puppet heads and lighting- and you get a visual display that focuses the eye on the actors themselves and not on their environment.
All these aside, you get to the meat of the bone. And what a juicy, succulent feast is served for the theater lover! If anyone has ever questioned the choices for the two lead roles, then the performances themselves are proof that neither was picked on the basis of their popularity in mainstream show business. Rachelle Ann Go, as Ariel, is a total revelation.
Far from the raw talent that she was when she won Star For The Night in 2004, Ms. Go has evolved into a class of her own. Her singing style has completely changed, her crystal clear voice coming from a wellspring of emotion, unlike common belters of today whose voices are hitched in their nether regions. Her diction is clear and crisp, her enunciation perfect, and she is a real delight as feisty, bullheaded, but naive Ariel. Everything about her makes perfect sense as the Little Mermaid.
If Ms. Go is a natural on stage, Mr. Erik Santos has a little bit of nerves to conquer. His voice, strong, clean, and melodious when he sings, sometimes fumbles when he speaks; it is either too loud or too soft at times. Still, Mr. Santos fits the bill of a handsome young prince and with time, he will learn to wear his princely persona like second skin.
Mr. Calvin Millado makes a great and regal Triton, no doubt about it. Fresh from Atlantis Productions’ In The Heights, where Mr. Millado also deftly played the role of a father to a teenager, his warm, deep voice emanates fatherly concern. The sea witch would have been a tricky person to cast, but Atlantis found the right mix of delicious evil, malicious humor, and crassness in Ms. Jinky Llamanzares’ Ursula. Flotsam (Jaime Barcelon) and Jetsam (Felix Rivera) are a memorable duo with their slithering malevolence.
OJ Mariano, last seen as Vittorio Vidal in 9works Theatrical’s Sweet Charity, has become a perfect professional in just less than year of theater work. He moves with grace, drops his punch lines with ease, and sings like there is no tomorrow. He loses his Jamaican accent sometimes, but manages to pick it up again without seemingly missing a beat. The rest of the cast- Ms. Lee Viloria as Flounder, Ikey Canoy as Scuttle, Raymond Concepcion as Grimsby, Japs Treopaldo as Carlotta, Juliene Mendoza as Chef Louise, as well as the entire ensemble (many of them topbillers in theater)- outdo themselves with their various role changes. While the original Broadway production had a heavy ensemble in its cast, Atlantis’ version relies on only these few talented individuals to tell Ariel’s tale. They fill the stage with the heft and gravitas of an impressive ensemble.
This being a Disney musical, many of the play’s memorable highlights are those that come directly from the 1989 animated film. “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” are iconic themes that need no introduction to the audience. In these songs, Atlantis pulls out all the stops, filling the stage with memorable set pieces and, in the case of the latter two songs, with wonderful costumed animals in the most intricate masks and puppet parts reminiscent of those used in The Lion King‘s animal parade.
And despite critics’ initial aversion to the ten new songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, songs that built up the original musical repertoire created by Mr. Menken and the late Howard Ashman, these have finally taken root with audiences, giving them a fleshed out, three-dimensional musical view of The Little Mermaid. “If Only,” a quartet sung by Ariel, the Prince, Sebastian, and King Triton, easily received the loudest cheers from the crowd, many of them wiping a tear or two at the end of the song.
In the final analysis, Atlantis Productions has proven that it doesn’t take just big bucks to make a stage musical work (though that couldn’t hurt). With a lot of ingenuity and real talent, even The Little Mermaid seems to have found its own happily ever after.