I feel kind of bad for this show, actually. It seemed to have so much potential: the original film, so often dismissed as kiddie fare in comparison with the rest of the Disney Renaissance, is a brilliant metaphor for adolescence and coming of age. Yes, the main character spends much of the film acting like a stubborn, self-involved brat and displays some spectacularly bad judgment at times, but I always want to ask the people who complain about that if they’ve ever actually met a teenager. Everyone goes through a stage like this on the way to actual maturity, and the movie captures the feelings that we all remember from that stage beautifully: ironically, adult audiences are far more equipped to understand the film’s intended subtext than the child audiences to which it’s most often presented.
The animation is often gorgeous, and the songs feature some of the best music Alan Menken ever wrote. “Part of Your World” didn’t become the most iconic Wanting Song of all time for no reason, you know; and the sparkling “Under the Sea”, the delicately ravishing “Kiss the Girl”, and the terrifying villain song “Poor Unfortunate Souls” match it in quality. And the stage version did two things unequivocally right: the new songs added for the stage show were, for the most part, up to the level of the film score (“Her Voice”, “One Step Closer” and “If Only” are particularly ravishing), and they assembled a terrific cast of singers to perform them, with Sierra Boggess’ exquisite Ariel and Sherie Renee Scott’s larger-than-life Ursula being especially impressive.
In fact, the cast album of this production is one of the treasures of the decade. And just as in the Beauty and the Beast stage version, the longer running time and added songs do quite a bit to flesh out the story and correct any dramatic weaknesses it might have had. But as strong as the actual composition undeniably was, the show was done in by one fatal, all-destroying flaw…they simply couldn’t come up with a way to stage the film’s underwater fantasy action without looking ridiculous.
It’s pretty telling that at the 2008 Tonys, the audience audibly tittered their way through “Part of Your World”. Think about it…an audience composed almost entirely of showbiz insiders who knew they were on live national television at the time still couldn’t manage to contain their laughter at this show’s pathetic attempts to match the look of the movie. Toward the end of the run, the showrunners became so desperate to find a way to advertise their show without showing a picture of it, that they starting putting up posters of a little girl with a look of what I’m assuming was supposed to be rapture on her face, with a caption underneath saying, ‘The Mermaid Effect’.
If they had managed to come up with a staging technique that conveyed the necessary effect without having to attempt to recreate the film’s literal look on a live stage, as The Lion King had, this could have been one of the very best of the Disney stage musicals; as it is, it stumbled along, largely on name recognition, for two years without ever managing to turn a profit, and it receives virtually no respect from the Broadway community even by Disney-show standards. If you really want to see a version of this story with equally beautiful music that can actually be staged effectively, my best recommendation would be Atonin Dvorak’s classic opera Rusalka.