As idle as a plastic ship upon a plastic ocean - with apologies to Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner" - that was the aqueous opening of "The Little Mermaid," Disney's latest musical extravaganza to brave the seas of Broadway.
And after that, it was plastic, plastic everywhere, enough to lead you to drink.
Oddly enough, it's George Tsypin's settings and Tatiana Noginova's costumes - with their breathtaking vulgarity and equally breathtaking confidence - that give this "Little Mermaid" a certain flap to its flippers in a sea of almost calculated mediocrity.
At least they showed a decently shipwrecked spirit, with their crazy ship, glistening revolving columns, glassily transparent seascapes and nuttily extravagant costumes, with Natasha Katz's lighting joining in what seemed an elaborated joke.
Underneath all this baroque ornamentation was a tiny, tinny little musical struggling for its life.
The story - based on the eponymous Disney cartoon about a mermaid's longing for a human prince - has music by Alan Menken and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman, with additional lyrics by Glenn Slater.
It also has a book, such as it is, by Doug Wright ("Grey Gardens," "I Am My Own Wife"), who has a distinguished career going and won't be mentioned again in case the going gets too quick.
The music is sort of perkily lugubrious. One tune - I honestly forget which - reminded me of something from Menken's "Beauty and the Beast," and another, the score's best moment, recalled one of those upbeat kick-arounds by Jerry Herman.
The lyrics fade away either in a miasma of romantic fatuity or a haze of grimly dull jokiness.
Apart from the omnipresent design team, the one other person here with a personal signature was choreographer Stephen ("Mary Poppins") Mear. His undersea creatures glide their way through wet land via Heelys - shoes with built-in wheels in their heels. They work wonderfully, although, after the first two hours, they lose their magic.
Yet throughout the long-littleness of the show, Mear's more than competent choreography shines out, as they say, like a good deed in a naughty world.
Presumably, the Disney people brought in the director Francesca Zambello from opera, much as they brought in Julie Taymor from puppet theater to helm "The Lion King." But as almost anyone who keeps an eye open on such matters could have told them, Zambello is no Taymor.
There isn't much I can say of the cast - all swimming upstream with a kind of grinning gallantry.
Sierra Boggess was sweet enough as the beached Mermaid; Sean Palmer wasn't quite sweet enough as the bleached-out Prince Eric, though not even a blend of Olivier and Pavarotti could have done it.
Sherie Rene Scott, with a Medusa wig and enough tentacles to make an octopus demand a recount, was an appropriately bitchy Witch Ursula, even if she overdid the drag-queen-in-drag bit. And the clowns - Eddie Korbich, Tituss Burgess (as the crab Sebastian), Jonathan Freeman and John Treacy Egan - clowned their hearts away to the audience's content.
And, well, I think that's it, as Shakespeare said when he buried the last body in "Hamlet."
Perhaps you noticed I've refrained from mentioning Hans Christian Andersen, author of the original "Little Mermaid." That's because, as a knight of the Order of Danneborg, I'd hate to have that honor rescinded.
Loved the shoes. Loathed the show.
O.K., I exaggerate. I didn’t like the shoes all that much. But the wheel-heeled footwear known as merblades, which allow stage-bound dancers to simulate gliding underwater, provides the only remotely graceful elements in the musical blunderbuss called “Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” which opened on Thursday at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater.
A variation on Heelys, a skate hybrid popular among schoolchildren and teenagers who are probably way too old for this production, merblades endow their wearers with the ability to skim hard surfaces with a near-balletic lightness. Unfortunately, a state of lightness is difficult to sustain when you’re being attacked on all sides by an aggressive ocean that appears to be made of hard plastic.
The get-out-of-my-way water, which periodically slides in like so many push-button car windows, is only one of the obstructions to be wrestled with by the cast members playing fish, seabirds and merfolk in Disney’s charm-free $15 million adaptation of its charming 1989 animated movie of the same title.
Directed by Francesca Zambello, this “Little Mermaid” burdens its performers with ungainly guess-what-I-am costumes (by Tatiana Noginova) and a distracting set (by George Tsypin) awash in pastels gone sour and unidentifiable giant tchotchkes that suggest a Luau Lounge whipped up by an acid-head heiress in the 1960s. The whole enterprise is soaked in that sparkly garishness that only a very young child — or possibly a tackiness-worshiping drag queen — might find pretty.
Come to think of it, the motto of this production, the latest and least of the Disney musicals to besiege Broadway since “Beauty and the Beast” opened in 1994, could be, “You can never go broke underestimating the taste of preschoolers.” In 1989 the film of “The Little Mermaid,” which signaled a renaissance in Disney animation and featured songs by the composer Alan Menken and the lyricist Howard Ashman that were regularly described as “Broadway-caliber,” was heralded as that rare fairy-tale cartoon that could be enjoyed just as much by grown-ups as by children. (Hey, I saw it three times.)
But in a perverse process of devolution “The Little Mermaid” arrives on Broadway stripped of the movie’s generation-crossing appeal. Coherence of plot, endearing quirks of character, even the melodious wit of the original score (supplemented by new, substandard songs by Mr. Menken and the lyricist Glenn Slater) have been swallowed by an unfocused spectacle, more parade than narrative, that achieves the dubious miracle of translating an animated cartoon into something that feels like less than two dimensions.
Inspired by the darker and more cautionary Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, “The Little Mermaid” was Disney’s first animated film to feature a newly empowered breed of heroine who gets the prince but doesn’t need saving by him. In this case that’s Ariel (played here by Sierra Boggess), the title character, a princess of the deep who defies her mighty father, King Triton (Norm Lewis, underused and bare chested) to pursue the handsome Prince Eric (Sean Palmer), a nonmarine form of life, on land. To do so she must enlist the aid of Ursula (Sherie Rene Scott), the evil sea witch, who transforms Ariel’s fish tail into human legs — but at what price?
I’m not going to give you any more plot, because of limitations of space, but if you have any intention of seeing this musical, please rent the movie first, or you will be utterly, you know, at sea. Despite a new book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Doug Wright, the ending, with its war-of-the-elements climax, is incomprehensible. And though the film’s supporting sea creatures, both frolicsome and dastardly, from the film, are all on board, it’s hard to figure out here just who and what they’re supposed to be.
Sebastian (Tituss Burgess), the Jiminy Crickett-like crab who is Ariel’s scolding sidekick, retains his trademark Caribbean accent but looks more like a lobster than a crab in his tiered shell suit. Scuttle, the malapropism-prone sea gull, looks like one of the Lollipop Kids from “The Wizard of Oz,” except for that beak on his hat. Flotsam (Tyler Maynard) and Jetsam (Derrick Baskin), Ursula’s electric-eel henchmen, resemble revelers at Limelight, the departed New York dance club, on a dinosaur-theme night.
The mermaids and fish, who include the winsome little guppy Flounder (the child actor Brian d’Addario, on the night I saw the show), are easier to identify, since they usually have tails, which nobody seems to have quite acquired the knack of manipulating. The choreographer, Stephen Mear, arranges his dancers onstage in an assortment of standard chorus-line variations, accented by swimming arm motions. But even a pull-out-all-the-stops number like the calypso-flavored “Under the Sea” fails to hold the attention.
This is partly because so many of the cast members seem distracted, as if they were trying to remember when and how to pull their tails, flippers, wings or whatever else they’ve been assigned. The unfortunate Ms. Scott, a brassy young Broadway veteran (“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Aida”), has eight octopuslike tentacles to contend with, which may account for the bizarre mutability of her accent, which shifts among Cockney, plummy English, Brooklynese and Zsa Zsa Gabor Hungarian.
But the problems go beyond inconvenient costumes. Ms. Zambello, best known as an adventurous director of operas, rarely lets jokes, songs or set pieces register clearly. And the impression is often of costumed employees from the Magic Kingdom of Disney World, wandering around and occasionally singing to entertain visiting children.
In like manner, most of the performers approach their characters with the forced jocularity of actors marking time in a theme park until a better job comes along. Ms. Boggess, who has a penny-whistle soprano, and Mr. Palmer look uncannily like regulation cartoon drawings of a pretty princess and prince, with all the attendant sex appeal and personality.
The original songs by Mr. Ashman (who died in 1991) and Mr. Menken are still winning. But they are diluted here by the muddled presentation and the repetitiveness of the additional numbers by Mr. Menken and Mr. Slater.
Sadly, following the demise of the joyless green blob that was “Tarzan,” “The Little Mermaid” suggests that on Broadway, the Disney magic touch has gone numb. The show’s creators appear to have been hoping for a cross between the company’s two biggest Broadway hits: “Beauty and the Beast,” which was a fair facsimile of the original movie, and “The Lion King,” which the director Julie Taymor turned into an ingenious, multicultural arts-and-crafts fair.
But what this “Little Mermaid” feels like, above all, is a cynical reversal of a once-traditional pattern of art and commerce. It used to be that the show came first, followed by merchandising tie-ins. Thoroughly plastic and trinketlike, this show seems less like an interpretation of a movie musical than of the figurines and toys it inspired.
Flying fishtails! Well, not exactly. Instead, the singing sirens of "The Little Mermaid" glide about on Heelys, their arms whirling in faux balletic motion, occasionally accompanied by the thwack of an errant fin or tail punishing some hapless ensemble member. If those figures sound more like Ice Capades refugees than the enchanting inhabitants of a persuasively rendered, magical underwater kingdom, then that's part of the problem with Disney's latest bid for Broadway residency. The massive brand power of the beloved 1989 animated feature might make disappointment over the show's diluted charms irrelevant. But the impression remains that this is a case of winning material hitched to the wrong creative team.
The musical has been somewhat improved since its Denver tryout last summer, with producers making use of the additional time when the planned December New York opening was delayed by the Broadway stagehands strike. Some -- but by no means all -- of the visual clutter has been stripped back, some of the more mystifying costumes have acquired a little definition, and the show makes considerable gains in intimacy, framed by the Lunt-Fontanne stage.
That theater was home -- during most of its 13-year New York run -- to "Beauty and the Beast," the first of the Disney screen-to-stage confections to hit Broadway, which prospered despite a tepid critical welcome and a pedigree owing more to theme-park entertainment than musical theater. While the ambitions of Disney's theatrical division have evolved since then in the artistically groundbreaking wake of "The Lion King," "Mermaid" is in many ways an Anaheim throwback.
Although shaped by lead creatives versed in the high-art world of opera -- director Francesca Zambello, set designer George Tsypin and costumer Tatiana Noginova -- this is a show of chiefly juvenile distractions. Stronger on color than design cohesion, its gaudy kitsch has neither the dazzling stagecraft of "Lion King" nor the impressive scale and storybook quaintness of "Mary Poppins."
Sierra Boggess' Ariel is a perfectly lovely, vocally accomplished lead, but Doug Wright's book somehow loses the fundamental quality that made Disney's update of the Hans Christian Andersen tale so captivating onscreen -- the mermaid who longs to be human and join her true love on land has traded plucky, independent spirit for generic sweetness.
No less deprived of personality despite an expanded role here is her inamorato, Prince Eric (Sean Palmer), a chiseled hunk given a couple of drippy numbers. (Alan Menken and Glenn Slater's mostly unmemorable new songs supplement the handful of enduring originals by Menken and the late Howard Ashman.)
In a deadpan turn from Sherie Rene Scott decked out in Noginova's tentacled Elizabethan squid skirt and a stunner of a platinum Medusa wig, sea witch Ursula makes a more vibrant impression. She sparks up the action with "I Want the Good Times Back," a Vegas-style ode to the mean old days before she was banished by her brother King Triton (Norm Lewis, a hot merdaddy with silver tresses and ripped torso).
But even in the seemingly failsafe area of the campy villainess, Wright's book falters. Ursula doesn't match the gleeful treachery of her screen counterpart, who was right up there with Cruella De Vil on the evil-ometer. And Scott -- flanked by reptile-like eels Flotsam (Tyler Maynard) and Jetsam (Derrick Baskin) -- often struggles with intended zingers that fall flat.
Sebastian (Tituss Burgess), the aggressively unendearing Caribbean crab, looks less like a crustacean than a creepy Leigh Bowery creation, while tap-dance supremo Eddie Korbich is saddled with the show's ugliest costume and two thankless comic numbers as seagull Scuttle.
An addition to the principal cast since Denver, Brian D'Addario (fresh from the "Les Miserables" revival and alternating with three other tykes) brings new verve to the role of Ariel's fish pal Flounder and big-voiced appeal to "She's in Love," a catchy, '60s-style number he shares with the mersisters.
But individual characters generally come and go without fostering much of a connection, and the 2½-hour story feels bloated, with Wright's book lacking the clarity and concision of the 83-minute movie. Zambello's sluggish direction doesn't help. A show in which fluid movement should be a prime factor is too often static, notably in Boggess' gorgeously sung "Part of Your World." The stand-and-deliver approach to many of the songs (unaided by Stephen Mear's routine choreography) leaves the characters looking constricted when they should be soaring or striving.
The two key numbers that were messes in Denver, "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl," have been rendered less chaotic but still suffer from Tsypin's unattractively abstract imagery and Noginova's fussy designs, occasional exceptions like the voluptuous jellyfish costumes notwithstanding.
Prince Eric's ship is interestingly stylized and the transitions between above and below the ocean's surface are deftly negotiated. But the three central elements that recur in slight variations -- two giant Cirque du Soleil-esque corkscrew towers with movable arms that open into twirling carousels, and a huge sunburst/chandelier that looks like a Christmas tree topper -- are particularly cumbersome, reducing the big production numbers to crowded processions.
The overall effect is that of a department store holiday window conjured by some display queen with artistic pretensions and a plastic fetish -- rarely of a mysterious world fathoms below. Only when Tsypin's Plexiglass sculptures are cleared and descriptive detail is left largely to Natasha Katz's bewitching lighting and Sven Ortel's video effects does something enchanting begin to happen.
That might not matter to girls eager to lose themselves in Ariel's princess journey, or to generations looking to revisit a film that cast its spell over them as children, so the Lunt-Fontanne likely will have a tenant for some time to come. But it's a missed opportunity in that one of Disney's strongest properties never comes close to repeating its transporting experience onscreen.