Tentacled Twist, Tap Dancing Make Moonlight’s ‘Mermaid’ Bubbly Fun

Pack your picnic basket with fish and seaweed chips. The musical adaptation of Disney’s 1989 movie the “The Little Mermaid” about a world under the sea is making waves under the stars at Moonlight Amphitheatre through Aug. 5.

Randall Hickman as the evil Sea Witch Ursula and tap dancing seagulls keep this bubbly family fun afloat.

Randall Hickman as Ursula. Photo by Adriana Zuniga Photography.

It’s the “Sorry Dad, I’m moving in with Eric” story of Ariel, the mermaid with a perfect voice who falls for a human prince. The Broadway-style musical adds new characters and 11 new songs, and expands the story line.

While the movie is designed for youngsters, themes of tolerance, faith, and interracial marriage (well, fish and human) appear if you dive deeper.  Moonlight director Steven Glaudini refreshes the story by casting Hickman as Ursula, who channels the drag queen Divine when scheming and undulating in a sequined octopus gown.

Hickman has ruled the Moonlight stage since 1989 in roles that include: Capt. Hook, Moonface Martin, Uncle Fester, and Edna Turnblad.

As Ursula, he’s big and loud–a bottle of rum in the kiddie punch–and balances the sweetness and puns spawned from Disney. His timing and naughtiness are to die for in “Daddy’s Little Angel” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls.”

Ursula’s dangerous cohorts Flotsam and Jetsam (Sarah Errington and Rae Henderson) add more comic relief with electric eel st-st-stuttering.

Chassey Bennett looks and sounds like the animated Ariel, complete with excellent pitch and blaze orange wig. If you’re a Disney freak and choose to wear a mermaid costume, you’ll fit right in.  It’s hard not to sing-a-long to “Under the Sea,” led by Sebastian, the loveable and syncopated crustacean played by Cornelieus Jones, Jr.

Kids and captive parents know the watery hits by heart. The 14-piece orchestra led by musical director Elan McMahan make them sound large yet tickle the ears.  Sound design by Jim Zadai is remarkable even outdoors.

With his deep voice and commanding presence in “If Only (Triton’s Lament),” Paul Oakley Stovall makes his solid Moonlight debut as King Triton.

David Burnham is a dreamboat as Prince Eric when singing “Her Voice,” and because he’s a nice guy, it’s a harmless fantasy.  Or is it?  There are debates about the power of fables to brainwash young girls, and boys, with idealized images of romance. Is Ariel tougher than Snow White and Cinderella?  Should Ariel give up her voice for a guy? Should the story be updated with Ariel going off to college to major in engineering?

When Hans Christian Andersen wrote the story in 1836, the mermaid fails to win her Prince’s love and he marries another woman, but the sweet mermaid can’t kill him so she turns to seafoam.  Hans was compelled to change the story, so she trades her voice for a soul, which is totally lost on little kids here.

The Company. Photo by Adriana Zuniga Photography

There’s a happily ever after ending in the Moonlight production, and girls and boys will have no trouble separating fantasy from reality.

Beauty and flaws are found in the costumes and sets. Ursula’s octopus costume by Renetta Lloyd has tentacles that bounce and spread out like a giant peacock tail. Unlike the movie, Ariel and her mermaid sisters don’t swim, and they don’t have tails.  Merfolk conjure the motion of water with fluttering hands. When perched on a fake rock, we long to see at least one mermaid tail flapping. Children dressed as sea turtles are adorable.

The strangest image of all is the flat ship designed without any perspective, as if crafted by a toddler. The most visually stunning sections are projections (by Johnathan Infante) of ocean currents and a shark swimming above Ursula’s cave.

A strong cast performs a flotilla of songs and portrays fish, sailors, birds, and chefs. While it’s not as inventive as The Lion King, there is lively dancing, choreographed by Karl Warden. Scuttle (Luke Harvey Jacobs) and his flock of Gulls give the stage a memorable pounding in “Positoovity.”

Disney “The Little Mermaid” runs at the Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista through Aug. 5. www.moonlightstage.com 760-724-2110.


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