Although nearly every little girl I know is captivated by princesses, including my three-year-old granddaughter, I’m no Disney fan — with the exception of a few early works: Snow White, with its terrifying scene where woodland roots turn to gnarled hands clutching at the heroine’s feet, and also Dumbo, whose inspired, hallucinogenic “Pink Elephants on Parade” really makes you wonder what those 1930s animators were smoking. Those films had occasional moments of surprise to offset the sugary sweetness of their main stories.
But these days, Disney movies and musicals tend to follow predictable plot lines occupied by stereotypical characters: an innocent female protagonist who occasionally shows a moment of spunk in a nod to contemporary feminism, a cardboard prince, a hugely powerful evil being, a wisecracking New Yorkerish friend-guardian. Still, if there’s any venue that can seriously challenge my prejudices, it’s BDT Stage. The dinner theater’s version of The Little Mermaid is a treasure and a visual treat — far better than Mermaid’s huge, flat national debut in Denver in 2007.
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Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tale is a wistful story of loss, death and redemption. The 1989 Disney movie painted it with the bright colors of American optimism and gave it a happy ending. (In Andersen’s story, the Little Mermaid loses her Prince and is transformed into sea foam; because of her essential goodness, however, she’s eventually allowed a chance to acquire a human soul.) The Disney touch is less deft in the stage show than it was in the movie. There are some terrific songs — “Under the Sea,” “Kiss the Girl,” “Part of Your World,” not to mention Sea Witch Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” — but there are also many lame ones, concentrated in the second act as the musical limps to its drawn-out end. The story grabs our interest as Ariel argues with her father, the Sea King; saves Prince Eric from a storm at sea; and begs Ursula, the Sea Witch, to give her legs in place of her tail so that she can live on land with her beloved. But then comes a long, unnecessary turn in the plot, and when Ariel finally defeats Ursula, her method is so obvious and uncomplicated that you can’t figure out why it took her so long to come up with it.
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At BDT Stage, director-choreographer Matthew D. Peters has done an outstanding job of communicating the magic of the story and minimizing the musical’s flaws. For the key roles of Eric and Ariel, he discovered two newcomers: Cole LaFonte and Lillian Buonocore, both entering their senior year at the University of Northern Colorado, who bring genuine and heartfelt enthusiasm to their roles. Coloradan Sierra Boggess starred as Ariel in the national production that debuted in Denver; she went on to good notices in New York. But while Boggess seemed to base her performance on a close imitation of the cartoon heroine, Buonocore comes across as far more human, vulnerable and moving. LaFonte is a kindly, handsome prince, and there’s also a killer appearance by Alicia K. Meyers as Ursula.
A lot of the credit for this production’s success lies in the tech, which is extraordinarily sophisticated for a theater the size of BDT Stage — both physical and in terms of resources. “I tried to figure out how to make it appear we were underwater,” Peters says. “It took a year and a half to come up with the vision.” He wanted “a sense of movement between land and water,” and credits Anna-Marie Monzon, who worked on projections to achieve it, while costume designer Linda Morken “took my crazy imagination and turned it into reality.” Fortunately, Peters says, BDT Stage artistic director Michael J. Duran gave him the freedom to experiment: “It’s not a great script, so I wanted to make the visual side as good as I could.”
In short, it’s still Disney. Yet this show manages to pacify a crotchety critic while also enchanting a princess-loving toddler. Watching my granddaughter standing up after the show and applauding with all her might, I wondered what images she’d take away from the evening: Ursula’s octopus arms? Moonlight seen through water? Or Ariel, slowly transforming as she rises to land from her home in the shimmering sea.
The Little Mermaid, presented by BDT Stage through September 8, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, bdtstage.com.