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Theater Review: ‘Mermaid’ Goes Swimmingly

  • Dani Westhead appears as Ariel in a scene from Northern Stage's production of "Disney's The Little Mermaid," at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction.

  • Dani Westhead, left, and David Bryant Johnson appear in a scene from Northern Stage's production of "Disney's The Little Mermaid" at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction. (Rob Strong photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, November 23, 2017

Please don’t just drop the kids or the grandkids off at the Barrette Center for the Arts to see Northern Stage’s production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid while you go holiday shopping these next few weeks.

Join them.

Better still, find a sitter and let them watch a DVD of the 1989 animated blockbuster on which the musical is based, or whatever you do these days to retrieve movies of modest vintage. Then you can lose yourself in an extravaganza that exceeds the sum of its parts.

From the moment the title character, Ariel (Dani Westhead), swims, with the help of subtle wires and harness, to the surface of the ocean to sing the praises of The World Above, until she walks off on her two new legs to a life of happily-ever-after with her sailor prince (David Bryant Johnson), the team that director Chad Larabee assembled for this production pulls off seamlessly the clashes and (mostly) reconciliations among species and cultures and generations in different worlds.

Credit for bringing these worlds to life, and for making me, at least, forget that I was watching in a theater in White River Junction instead of New York or Boston, belongs in equal measures to costume designer Aaron Patrick DeClerk, choreographer Robin Levine, projection designer Caite Hevner, lighting designer Travis McHale, musicians Joshua McEwen and Brett Gregory, sound designer Ed Chapman, wig-and-hair designer Robert Pickens and a cast equally adept and engaging as actors, singers and dancers.

As often happens with Disney adaptations of classic fairy tales — in this case Hans Christian Andersen’s beloved aquatic fable — the leads are attractive and conflicted but bland, at least in comparison with the supporting characters. In this production, the support splashes in from many directions. As the seagull Scuttle, Ben Liebert fires out musical malapropisms as acrobatically as he tumbles onto the stage in his opening scene and later flies above the stage.

Meanwhile, Saidu Sinlah, as the Caribbean-accented crab sidekick Sebastian, shuttles between his loyalties to Ariel and to her sea-god father Triton with the kind of gender-bending bearing that Chris Tucker, as Ruby Rhod, used to nearly steal the 1997 sci-fi hit The Fifth Element from Bruce Willis.

The most accomplished thief of this production is Leslie Becker, as Ursula, the bitter sea-witch who is plotting to dethrone Triton (Andrew Ragone, with a well-displayed six-pack of abdominals). A veteran of Broadway national-tour productions of Wicked and Beauty and the Beast, Becker bestows curses and dispatches her eel minions Flotsam and Jetsam with a cackle

and a relish calling to mind an evil twin of Angela Lansbury. In the lead-up to duping Ariel into trading her otherworldly voice for legs that will allow her to join the prince, Ursula sings:

The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber

They think a girl who gossips is a bore

Yes, on land, it’s much preferred

For ladies not to say a word …

All of these adventures whirl onto and around the stage, at the bottom of the well of the theater without a proscenium, in pastel lights of blue and purple and pink and white — sometimes on the sail-like backdrop, sometimes in the hair of Ariel’s six sisters, among whom Dartmouth College sophomore Stephanie Everett plays Adella.

Among the big musical numbers, Under the Sea, the standout effect features one of the ensemble walking in from the audience as an illuminated jellyfish, then swaying in the water while Sebastian cautions Ariel that “the seaweed is always greener in somebody else’s lake.”

If you do see this show without the kids, you may want to bring them to enjoy an encore.

Northern Stage presents Disney’s The Little Mermaid at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction through Jan. 7. Performances over the coming week are scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 2, Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30, Wednesday morning at 11 and Wednesday night at 7:30. For tickets ($15 to $69) and more information, visit northernstage.org or call 802-296-7000.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.

Correction

Joshua McEwen and Brett Gregory are performing the live music during Northern Stage's production of Disney's The Little Mermaid.  An earlier version of this review referred to two other musicians who were listed in an early version of the printed program for the production.