Forgive me if this article contains a lot of typos. I’ve just been to see the stage version of Disney’s
The Little Mermaid, and as a result I’m suffering from severe eye-ache. The word garish barely begins to convey the ugly crassness with which director Francesca Zambello and her design team—no, let’s make that “anti-design team”— of George Tsypin (sets), Tatiana Noginova (costumes), and Natasha Katz (lighting) have infused every moment of what I assume was intended to be a charming children’s entertainment. Forget it. If you have charming children, keep them as far away as possible from this eyesore—ah, I knew I’d find the right word for it sooner or later. Except that, thanks to John Shivers’s excruciating sound design—and, yes, “unsound design” would be a more apt description—most of the evening is also what I’m obliged to call an ear-sore, too.
Am I wrong in recalling that the songs Alan Menken composed for the original 1989 movie, to the late Howard Ashman’s lyrics, were appealing once upon a time? Zambello has fixed that. After she and her associate in destruction, the one-step-fits-all choreographer Stephen Mears, have finished trash-mashing “Under the Sea,” you can hardly tell the Menken-Ashman songs from those Menken has contrived with lyricist Glenn Slater for this stage version—and you won’t have the faintest idea if any of the new songs are any good, either. It’s all been turned into an undifferentiated wall of upper-register belt voices yowling out equally indecipherable lyrics. Just imagine an industrial-waste dump randomly flecked with bits of non- biodegradable multicolored plastic, and you’ll know what the show sounds like.
The Disney corporation’s theatrical track record is getting sorrier and sorrier. Given the context, I suppose I should have written “soggier and soggier,” but even bad puns are no consolation when viewing a shipwreck this dire. Artistically speaking, Beauty and the Beast made a half-successful transition to the stage. The Lion King, thanks to Julie Taymor’s intervention, became a triumph. Since then, Disney’s stage offerings have traced a long, slow, downward spiral of sputtering misfires and lapsing taste—Aida with the wrong score; Tarzan with no jungle; the top-heavy, misshapen
Mary Poppins—till, at last, here we are among the aimlessly drifting debris cluttering the ocean floor.
The sinking feeling sets in from the very first moment of the show, when Merwin Foard, as the pilot of Prince Eric’s ship, has to start singing from behind the rigging because Zambello apparently can’t find a spot on the set for him to stand face-front. Foard is one of the many gifted and likable performers trapped amid The Little Mermaid‘s detritus who deserve to spend their evenings doing something better. Why must a genuine comic actor like Jonathan Freeman, as the prince’s advisor, be reduced to a stock spare part? Who decided that the enchanting Sherie René Scott (Ursula) should become Disney’s synonym for vindictive shrewishness? How could the songwriters hear Norm Lewis’s gorgeous voice and not come up with something better for King Triton to sing? Sierra Boggess, playing the title role, doesn’t come off as badly as some, though when she belts in her head voice she sounds every bit as shrewish as Scott. She shows herself nimble of foot when, in one of the show’s few blessedly quiet moments, she waltzes with her prince, Sean Palmer, who manages to give the show’s only wholly appealing performance, mainly because he’s kept largely apart from the bedlam of the rest.
The show’s misuse of so many artists whom we already know to be wonderful (Eddie Korbich, Tyler Maynard, Heidi Blickenstaff—the list goes on) comes from the besetting sin that generally makes corporate-generated commercial theater a form of artistic pollution: lack of imagination. When they entrust artists who have some imaginative power with primary responsibility, creative results can occur, as with Taymor and The Lion King. But corporate “suits” don’t look at the artists’ results; they look at the résumé. Zambello, whose previous perpetrations in New York include a Lucia di Lammermoor and a Les Troyens that are among the Met’s more embarrassing productions, has lots of credits, but no credibility as a creator of work that feeds the imagination. Say you’re doing a musical that takes place under the sea, and one of the characters is, literally, an old crab. Naturally, you cast the smiliest actor you can find and have him walk like a normal human being. Don’t you? Well, that’s what Zambello did. Tituss Burgess is a delightful performer, but the word frown doesn’t seem to be in his vocabulary, and neither his costume nor his behavior conveys much that we would associate with the concept “crab.” The most disheartening aspect of The Little Mermaid isn’t its unattractive look and sound, but the absence of any moment where something occurs that could delight a child in a way you might call magical.
The great puppeteers whose work has enlivened our theater so gratifyingly in the past few decades—Taymor, Ralph Lee, Julie Archer, Basil Twist—have put enormous, painstaking effort into achieving this sense of magic, which must always be grounded in reality: The imaginative energy it releases, as Jung said about fairy tales, comes neither from the fantasy nor from the reality, but from the movement between the two planes. Paul Sills, who created extraordinary joy for children, on Broadway as elsewhere, with his Story Theater productions, is the classic exponent of what I mean. He needed none of Disney’s lavish, pricey, heavily pictorial but unconvincing visual resources: When actors in his Story Theater had to become a chicken or a gnome or a witch or a flounder, their own bodies on a largely bare stage were the only materials employed. And they looked more like the relevant species or supernatural figures than the figures in chiffon-finned fish costumes floating on the upper level of The Little Mermaid‘s undersea scenes, who look only like giant butterflies left over from Tarzan—where they looked mainly like an attempt to Xerox something from The Lion King to start with.
But the creative imagination doesn’t work by xerography. You can subsidize it and nurture it, but you can’t buy it. Americans love buying things for their kids, and a lot of them will love taking their kids to The Little Mermaid, fooled by its look of gaudy expenditure, just as a lot of them love taking their kids to Vegas. Apparently, one of the American dreams of our time is to have your kids grow up to be compulsive gamblers or pricey hookers. It somehow doesn’t feel accidental that the last Broadway musical this garish was that other disaster, The Best Little Whorehouse Goes Public. Americans think they can buy anything, even a happy ending for a story that, in every version until Disney’s, invariably ended tragically. E.T.A. Hoffmann, Vincent Wallace, Lortzing, Catalani, Dargomyzhky, and Dvorak couldn’t make the marriage of man and mermaid work out. Neither could La Motte Fouqué, H.C. Andersen, Giraudoux, or Lampedusa. Only Disney insists. That piece of obstinate corporate wrongheadedness, present from the start, explains the outlook that gave rise to such miserable results: Nothing will ever really harm you, and everything’s marketable.