At the opening-night performance of The Little Mermaid, I saw a little girl perched on a booster seat, ecstatically dancing her upper body to the big numbers; in the row behind me, a pair of sisters waved their small sparkly shoes. At intermission, wide-eyed boys wandered the corridors in adorable formal jackets, and many adults in the building seemed just as filled with pride: They were seeing something no other audience in the country has yet seen, since Disney chose Denver for the unveiling of this huge new spectacle. Not only that, but Mermaid's star is Sierra Boggess, who grew up in this very town and who — according to the acres of newsprint recently devoted to her — is as charmingly unpretentious as the unspoiled heroine she plays.
What a shame that the production itself is anti-climactic. Viewers keep commenting that it just needs a little tweaking before its imminent trip to New York, but I'm not sure that's enough. The Little Mermaid will probably make money on sheer hype and general nostalgia for the 1989 movie, but there's not much happening here on the creative or conceptual level. You don't expect insight, original characterizations or brilliant plot twists from Disney, of course. But you do expect pretty — pretty people singing pretty songs in pretty costumes on a pretty set. And since this show cost more than the annual budget of some Third World countries, you'd hope for more than pretty. You want spectacular and astonishing. You want beautiful.
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Disney money has bought brilliant artists in the past. I will never forget the sight of Julie Taymor's magnificent giraffes swaying down the aisles of the theater where I first saw The Lion King, the way the puppets fused human and mechanical, animal movement and dance. Alas, in The Little Mermaid, only Natasha Katz's lighting on the transparent panels representing the sea comes close to this level of sophistication. The sets, by George Tsypin, are minimal, the few furnishings clunky. Ariel keeps the human artifacts she's lovingly gathered in a shell that looks as synthetic as an ornament from a seaside gift shop; two strange objects that appear to be either coat hangers or bottle openers dominate the underwater scenes. Tatiana Noginova's costumes are no better. Thanks to the fluid medium in which they live, real-life sea creatures develop colors and shapes so fantastical that they should inspire any designer — but some of the fish depicted here look like Vegas showgirls, others like nothing that could be imagined swimming in water. The mermaids' tails sprout lewdly out of their rears. Not remembering the movie well, I didn't realize that Scuttle was meant to be a seagull, and spent several minutes trying to figure out what species of marine life would sport an excrescence like a cooked lobster claw on its head.
Adding to the disappointment, choreographer Stephen Mear's movement is uninspired, so that "Under the Sea" — a number that should have stopped the show — simply fades. Boggess has graceful arms and a supple back, so there's no reason Ariel's first dance with Sean Palmer's Prince Eric should be so unsatisfying. Sure, it's supposed to start out clunky and awkward, but this is a falling-in-love scene, and we expect eventual flight. Unlike the Buell, the Ellie Caulkins Opera House has a first-rate sound system, which makes the music lush and sometimes pulse-quickening — even music as wallpaper-familiar as the songs in The Little Mermaid. But while Boggess's voice is lovely, it's disconcerting to see a living actress so sedulously imitating a cartoon character, right down to the huge smile and cutesy bits of physical business. Then again, no one is really called on to act. Palmer makes the cardboard prince as human as possible. Tituss Burgess does all he can with Sebastian. Norm Lewis has the powerful voice and strong physique needed for a semi-mythic figure like King Triton, but the character is scripted more like a hapless, bewildered dad in an after-school special.
The Little Mermaid
Presented by Denver Center Attractions through September 9, Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
A handful of performers do manage to make vivid impressions. Helped by one of the evening's few successful costumes and a couple of great numbers, Sherie Rene Scott rivets with every appearance. The voices of Derrick Baskin and Tyler Maynard marry sinuously and poisonously on "Sweet Child." And John Treacy Egan brings wonderful vitality to the role of Chef Louis, along with a fine, swelling voice.
Unfortunately, the plot falls completely apart in the second act, and the climax is so dispiriting that it feels as if the writer simply threw up his hands and tossed in every cliche he could think of before racing for the door. Since the book is by Doug Wright, whose play I Am My Own Wife proclaims him a serious voice in theater, you have to wonder about the constraints he may have been under. But in an odd way, the production's failure to stay afloat is reassuring. It proves that even massive amounts of corporate money can't substitute for one indispensable factor: human artistry.