Review of Seattle’s The 5th Avenue Theatre Production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid

I don’t know if déjà vu increases with age or if reality starts repeating itself as I grow older. I don’t know if déjà vu increases with age or if reality starts repeating itself as I grow older, but last night while watching The 5thAvenue Theatre’s production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, I found myself thinking, I’ve been here before.

Nostalgia is certainly a selling point for anything Disney and necessary to keep the brand going. Disneyland is frequently packaged with “remember what a great time you had coming here as a kid; make sure your children have the same experience. Just make sure you don’t focus on the fact that everything costs way more than it used to…I mean you might think you are prepared for the cost differential, but you haven’t been paying attention to what we’ve been doing recently. I mean you are going to have to sneak sandwiches into the park for lunch…but don’t pay attention to that. Come share and rediscover the magic and wonder you experienced as a child…and probably bring a couple credit cards too.”

Disney’s invasion and reinvigoration of Broadway was heavily rooted in nostalgia, with a perfect target audience. Older adults who remembered the Disney movies of their youth, needing an excuse to spend their discretionary income on their kids and grandkids while visiting New York, happily forked over large sums of money to watch Belle tame her Beast. And although some lamented the Disneyfication of musical theater, others welcomed the new infusion of audience members and cash. 

Regardless of one’s cynicism, the productions were mostly good, and there was definitely room for family friendly entertainment that was less about barbers turning their adversaries into meat pies and more about plucky young female protagonists turning into princesses. Parents were more comfortable bringing their kids to a very elaborate Lion King puppet show than a cabaret period piece. So Broadway became less Fosse and more Mickey. I personally have no problem with Disney presenting well produced, highly entertaining musical spectacles. However, I am less pleased with how the success of one genre can lead to the decline of other important and meaningful genres. For example, there was a time in human history when every other movie was not about Iron Man, or Spider Man, or Ant Man, or CGI Man, or…you get the picture. 

Disney musicals have become such a secure economic stimulant that they are now included in the seasonal fare of many successful musical theater companies. Whether frequenting The 5th Avenue Theatre or your local children’s theater group, you are probably going to encounter at least one Disney musical production a year. And people will love it. And your kids will love it. And you’ll reconnect with all those wonderful childhood memories. However, over time, it can all feel a little like…what’s the word….déjà vu. I don’t know if déjà vu increases with age or if reality starts repeating itself as I grow older, but last night while watching The 5thAvenue Theatre’s production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid I found myself thinking, I’ve been here before.

The show was incredibly well done. Special recognition should be given to the person in charge of the wire work choreography (Paul Rubin). Watching Ariel (Diana Huey) swim swiftly through the air while belting out crowd pleasing tunes is truly a magical sight to see. Diana Huey’s voice is powerful and on point and she deserve particular credit for singing so well while wiggling and leaning forward on wires 20 feet above the stage. By the way, do the actors have back pain from slowly wiggling throughout the entire production to simulate their underwater environment? Everyone is so committed to the buoyancy choreography that audience members prone to sea sickness should probably take Dramamine precautions.

Prince Eric (Coleman Cummings) has a strong voice that is extremely lovely when expressing tender musical moments. He does a good job of making Prince Eric’s desire to wed a mute, beautiful, shipwrecked girl seem less creepy and more connected. We are convinced that he actually values Ariel for more than her looks, but also for her dancing. Ariel and Prince Eric have good chemistry on land. Underwater, Prince Eric’s double does a great job of almost drowning. 

Kevin Smith Kirkwood portrays a very strong Sebastian whose voice particularly shines when he reaches the higher registers. Speaking of shines, Shaunyce Omar’s voice doesn’t just shine, it shimmers. It is smooth, rich, and thoroughly suited for the role of Ursula. If a Little Mermaid production doesn’t cast Ursula right, the show ain’t going to be any good. The 5th did it right and the reward is listening to Omar bring to life one of Disney’s most delightful villains and villainous songs. This is where I say something such as, “You would be an unfortunate soul not to see Shaunyce Omar perform live on the musical stage.”

The other Little Mermaid roles check the right boxes and the actors do their most with the content they’ve been provided. My only complaints revolved around not being able to understand much of what Scuttle (John David Scott) was saying or singing. It might be the accent, or I might just not pick up seagull well. Regardless, he had a great tap-dancing number that reminded the audience that the best way to learn how to walk is through tap. 

I also struggled with the King Triton (Terence Kelley) character. Both in the movie and on the stage, King Triton is presented as a rather boring, abusive, loud-mouthed god. Kelley does his best to present the character, as I assume he is written. However, King Triton comes off flat and distant in comparison to his sister Ursula’s wonderfully mischievous personality. It would be nice if they made Triton a little more three dimensional because even when there is a reconciliation at the end, one feels like Ariel ain’t visiting her father in the future unless it’s some sort of unavoidable obligatory family function.

Flotsam (Cassi Q Kohl) and Jetsam (Ethan Carpenter) do well as big haired electric eels with wheels or eelys with Heelys. And Flounder (Keoni Dilay) sort of just wanders through the musical confused about his relationship with Ariel and his role in the show. Dilay does well in playing a part that doesn’t get much purpose in the production. For some reason they have Flounder occasionally ride a Ripstik across the stage to probably give him something to do. 

When the show ended, I was pleased with the production. It was like I had just gotten off a very familiar ride at Disneyland. When I came home to do a little research for my review, I realized why the show is so familiar. In 2016 The 5th Avenue Theatre put on a touring production of The Little Mermaid that I also watched and reviewed. Looking back, I now realize that this new production of The Little Mermaid has the same director (Glenn Casale), choreographer (John Macinnis), Ariel (Diana Huey), set, and costumes as the 2016 production. In other words, it is kind of a rerun. A good rerun, but a rerun nonetheless. So, if you are interested in watching a slightly different, but mostly same production of a Disney Musical classic, then come and enjoy an excellent production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid at The 5th Avenue Theatre. If you are looking for something a bit more new and complex, you’ll have to wait for a future, probably less attended show.

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