Wesley Allen as Sebastian (center), Kathleen Rooney as Ariel (left center), and the ensemble of “The Little Mermaid”. Photo | Kathy Sandham

Beck Center’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ a buoyant fish-out-of-water tale

By Bob Abelman

A few months ago, several blogs reported that people in possession of “Black Diamond Collection” Disney VHS tapes might have thousands of dollars’ worth of rare materials on their hands. “The Little Mermaid” was identified as one of the most valuable and sought after commodities in the eBay marketplace.

Unfortunately, like most of the mint-condition Beanie Babies and unopened packs of Pokémon cards we’ve been hoarding, Disney VHS tapes are worth only the price of purchase. Cheer up. The Beck Center for the Arts’ production of “The Little Mermaid” is worth far more than the cost of admission.

The show is based on the 2008 Broadway production that was based on the animated 1989 film that was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story about a young mermaid who dreams of the world above the sea and gives up her voice and flippers to find love.

While the film garnered an impressive $84 million at the domestic box office during its initial release and the VHS tape became the year’s top-selling title on home video, the Broadway production did not fare as well.

The reason is that Doug Wright’s script does not live up to the film’s screenplay, several new tunes written with Glenn Slater don’t live up to Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s wonderfully witty and melodic film score, and no amount of costly special effects – including a flying apparatus used to create the illusion of characters swimming underwater – can recreate Disney’s cinematic storytelling.

Beck Center director Scott Spence’s answer to the fundamental flaws in this family-friendly show is to throw talent at it, which works like a charm.

In lieu of exorbitant special effects, he relies on Adam Zeek’s animated projections and Jeff Herrmann’s lighting to expand and enhance Douglas Puskas attractive scenic design and to help differentiate sea from shore.

In the place of wires and harnesses, every musical number is given flight by Martin Cespedes’ charming and exceptionally clever choreography, which is delivered by a talented and thoroughly invested ensemble of sea creatures and seagulls. “Under the Sea,” “Positoovity,” “Kiss the Girl” and “She’s in Love” are genuine showstoppers.

And though the rental of second-tier costuming merely captures the essence of each nonhuman character, the gifted actors inside – J.R. Heckman as the teenaged Flounder, Wesley Allen as the Caribbean crab Sebastian, Zachary Vederman as the scatterbrained seagull Scuttle and Darryl Lewis as put-upon single-Dad King Triton – do the rest.

Natalie Blalock’s octopus costume is significantly more detailed and elaborate, but then the role and Blalock’s remarkable performance as Ursula warrants it. Summit J. Starr and Carlos Antonio Cruz, as Ursula’s moray eel henchmen Flotsam and Jetsam, don’t need the aide of the rollerblades worn by the Broadway performers to give them snake-like movement. Their graceful physicality is more than sufficient.

Knowing that the title-character is the thing that drives every Disney’s princess production, Spence has found the perfect Ariel and Prince Eric in Kathleen Rooney and Shane Patrick O’Neill. They look, sound and astound like the animated versions, but bring to the stage heart and vulnerability that is theirs alone. An exceptional dancer, Rooney is given ample opportunity to put her talents on display once her fishtail is replaced by feet, thanks to Ursula’s spell.

Brian Pedaci as Prince Eric’s authoritative guardian, Grimsby, anchors this fish tale in life’s realities with great tenderness while Robert Pierce weighs anchor with wonderful abandon as Chef Louis in the hilarious “Les Poissons” production number and subsequent slap-stick chase scene that got the kids in the audience – a 3:1 radio to adults at the opening Saturday matinee – screaming with delight.

And because this large kid contingency might not notice or care about such things, particularly in a Disney musical, this production takes some creative license with regard to natural science. In the undersea scenes, no one undulates rhythmically or reactions to currents as if floating. In the scenes on shore, no attention is given to how the sea creatures attending Ariel and Eric’s wedding manage to breathe.

One would imagine some interesting conversations on the drive home, starting with what a delightful experience this Beck Center production delivered.

On Stage

WHAT:  “The Little Mermaid”

WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood

WHEN: Through Dec. 31

TICKETS & INFO:  $12 – $31, call 216-521-2540 or go to beckcenter.org

Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.

Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Nov. 19, 2016.

Lead image: Wesley Allen as Sebastian (center), Kathleen Rooney as Ariel (left center), and the ensemble of “The Little Mermaid”. Photo | Kathy Sandham