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Diana Huey's lovely performance is the highlight of 'Little Mermaid'

Let’s cut to the chase: The sole reason you should buy a ticket to “The Little Mermaid,” which runs through Sunday in Shea’s Performing Arts Center, is star Diana Huey.

She is star-making in the lead role of Ariel, the red-haired princess of the underwater who longs for legs, the mermaid created by Hans Christian Andersen and immortalized by Disney in the 1989 animated film.

If you read the news this week, you might have seen the story about the apparent controversy over Huey playing the role. Huey is Asian-American, and Ariel, a mermaid, is, I guess, Caucasian.

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The story went viral, and Huey earned heaps of praise and support from fans, ticket-buyers and Broadway celebrities. Princess characters, perhaps more than most other archetypes, should reflect the diverse population of children looking up to them, the responses indicated. It’s Huey’s strength as a performer, and not her ethnic or racial background, that should qualify her for the job.

Huey delivered, so well that when it came time for her bow, the already-standing audience, which appeared to be at capacity, went wild for her. Huey appeared to acknowledge the extra cheers, which she duly earned. Her performance was beautiful, full of innocence and longing, charm and delight, angst and empowerment. And she can sing the tentacles off any lingering villain.

It’s a good thing she was so good, too. Because the show is weak, and sometimes unenjoyable. This production is a collaboration between the Pittsburgh CLO (Civic Light Opera) and Kansas City Starlight, two regional theaters with presumably smaller budgets than Disney Theatrical Productions, which premiered this stage version in 2007 to mediocre reviews. This production is scaled back, both in scale and magic.

It can’t be easy to translate swimming, metaphysical creatures to the gravity-laden stage. Francesca Zambello, the show’s original Broadway director, whose work is more or less emulated here by Glenn Casale, borrowed from various performance styles to create a fluid world. If you watch carefully, you’ll see inspiration from Julie Taymor, creative visionary of Disney’s magnificent stage adaptation of “The Lion King,” who herself borrowed from opera, puppetry and European circus art.

Kenneth Foy’s stage designs are less inspiring than Taymor’s touch. Some elements ignite the imagination, like Charlie Morrison’s deep-sea lighting design, while Amy Clark and Mark Koss’s costume design begs for an edit. Ultimately, it’s best to suspend your disbelief and go along for the ride. Imagine an ocean. Picture a six-foot-tall dancing crab. Squint your eyes, if you must.

Our cast does a serviceable job in these ridiculous roles. Dane Stokinger gives an appropriately clownish performance as French Chef Louis, a character that exists for one very long, very unnecessary scene. Connor Russell is adorable as Flounder, a teenage fish madly in love with Ariel. Eric Kunze, as the dashing (if long in the tooth) Prince Eric, is about as dull as princes usually are in these stories. It’s anyone’s guess why Ariel employs such feminist ideas to transform her body into Eric’s wife.

Ultimately, the biggest letdown is Jennifer Allen as Urusla, the villainess octopus who trades Ariel’s angelic voice for immortality. Always the bridesmaid, right?

Allen’s Ursula goes off the page in a way that makes me think she’s bored with the role. She says her lines like you’re supposed to already know them, jumping from one emotional inflection to another within the same sentence. It plays as self-indulgent and is a big turn-off. Her big song, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” is one of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s best, a perfect closer for the musical’s first act. I wish the show had ended at this point.

Huey deserves a lot of praise for this production, which tries too hard to re-create a movie and in doing so, forgets that it’s creating a piece of theater. Your young ones might have a ball, but don’t be surprised if, like Ariel, you, too, wish to stretch your legs.

THEATER REVIEW

"The Little Mermaid"

2 stars (out of four)

Through Sunday in Shea's Performing Arts Center (646 Main St.). Performances are at 7 p.m. Aug. 16-18, 2 and 7 p.m. Aug. 19 and 1 and 6 p.m. Aug. 20. Tickets are $37 to $82. Visit sheas.org or call 800-745-3000.

Email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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