TAMPA — Like the pre-fixed ideas Disney's the Little Mermaid tries to fight, the show itself resists labeling.
This touring version comes to the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts significantly tweaked by director Glenn Casale, who aimed to improve the show that ran on Broadway nearly a decade ago. The changes update a story that began as a Hans Christian Andersen fable, about a mermaid who trades away her voice to live on land with a prince.
The crowd included a healthy number of women in their 30s, a target audience for the 1989 animated film, many with daughters in tow. To reach children and adults, King Triton and his estranged sister, Ursula, get a backstory in the makeover. All undersea characters get to trade in sneakers, a funky touch that now seems tiresome, for harnesses to simulate flight.
Ariel herself has also changed. On Broadway she wanted to be human. Now she just wants to fit in. It's kid-friendly self-discovery, represented by an actor in a bright red wig. Throw other popular tales into a blender and you'll find pieces here — a little Wizard of Oz, a little Cinderella or an ugly duckling.
It's a comedy, with the undersea witch Ursula slithering around her lair, sipping absinthe and cackling at her own jokes. It's a cartoon with dozens of scene changes, each to a new and arresting color scheme.
Through all of that, The Little Mermaid never forgets its original incarnation as a romance. The biggest help there is Diana Huey as Ariel, whose buoyancy keeps the show afloat through the second act, most of which her character performs silently. Huey is of Japanese-American heritage and has received letters and emails from young Asian actors who are inspired by her, and the show's colorblind casting.
Eric Kunze looks the princely part of Prince Eric, plus he can sing. Yet his courtship feels more meticulous than passionate, love's labors checked off like items on a grocery list.
Jennifer Allen is oily and magnificent as Ursula, the villain who separates Ariel from her voice, a bit of the cowardly lion and Ethel Merman mixed in. Flotsam and Jetsam, her eel-like minions (Brandon Roach and Frederick Hagreen), manipulate her tentacles and combine in a lovely duet (Sweet Child). In a cast studded with standouts, Melvin Abston was particularly endearing as Sebastian the crab, Ariel's assigned mentor, who became an audience favorite.
Abston cements the cast to a Calypso beat in Under the Sea, his pitch for the princess to stay in her own realm. This is an important song, for it's here that the musical passes from the implied dance of hypnotic undersea movement practiced up until then by the entire cast, to something much more celebratory and overt. Dancers fly well above the stage, colors burst forth, and puppeteers master schools of fish, accomplishing in a hint the kind of magic some musicals spend a fortune to replicate.
All of this might seem like a succession of stunning sights and little else. That wouldn't be fair. This show sustains interest for children, a demanding audience if ever there was one, while giving the adults something to think about or at least enjoy. Even if much of the achievement lies in visual imagery, at a certain point the sheer volume of it has to count for something. Ariel's Zeuslike father, King Triton (Steve Blanchard), eventually loosens up and gives his blessing to marry the prince.
But this audience wants more than a happily-ever-after romance. It wants a wedding, with a white gown and a towering cake, culminating with a long-awaited kiss.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.