Review

Ariel version 2.0: 'The Little Mermaid' splashes into La Mirada Theatre with an updated story

It shouldn't shock anybody to hear that McCoy Rigby Entertainment's new production of "The Little Mermaid" at La Mirada Theatre is a treat for the eyes and ears. Audiences expect no less from a musical based on the beloved 1989 Disney film, which revitalized the field of animation and won its composer, Alan Menken, two Academy Awards. Producers know that we're lining up to watch a dazzling spectacle and to hear our favorite songs, and that it would be unwise to provide any less.

With the help of wires and flying choreography by Paul Rubin, Ariel the mermaid (Alison Woods) swims like a dolphin against a backdrop of sumptuous, bubbly blues, sometimes accompanied by wondrous sea creatures such as a giant, pulsing orange jellyfish. Woods' gorgeous voice and bewitching demeanor prove her a worthy heiress to the aquatic redhead's tiara. Melvin Abston as Sebastian, the Caribbean crab, delivers "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl" with the wit and verve of his cartoon predecessor while resembling, in his charming colonial costume, George Washington dyed red. The other nonhuman characters — Scuttle the seagull (Jamie Torcellini, channeling Nathan Lane) and Flounder (Adam Garst) — have been costumed just as playfully by designer Mark Koss.

What's surprising about this remake is the subtle care and thought with which the story has been updated. In 2008 an earlier iteration of this "Mermaid" ran on Broadway, directed by Francesca Zambello, with a book by Doug Wright and additional songs by Menken and Glenn Slater. After that version disappointed expectations, director Glenn Casale got onboard to retool it. His efforts, on display at La Mirada, won't delight everybody, but they are respectful, creative and timely. He and his team have navigated tricky shoals, adding depth to the story and characters without foundering on the reefs of innovation.

Our taste in princesses is fickle: Ariel may be less passive than some of her royal predecessors — Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty — but she has been totally out-sassed by the Disney heroines who followed her. Princesses today are too busy earning black belts and implementing progressive government reform to moon over princes or wait for magic to rescue them. For all her pluck, the movie Ariel is a teenager willing to sacrifice everything — her family, her kingdom, her musical gift and even an integral body part — for a guy who may not even appreciate her.

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Casale, Wright and the songwriters shift the focus just enough from Ariel's crush to her existential dilemma: Even before she notices Prince Eric on his ship, she's uncomfortable in her scales, a girl trapped in the body of a mermaid. Her mission still revolves around persuading Eric to kiss her, but it's also about claiming her true identity and earning the acceptance of her loved ones. 

King Triton (Fred Inkley) isn't just a trident-wielding heavy but a single father mourning his wife and struggling to understand the youngest of his seven daughters; he takes us, even while wearing a see-through shirt, on a touching character arc. Ursula the sea witch (the divine Tracy Lore) is now Triton's embittered sister. (How an octopus ended up in a mer-family is, probably for the best, not explained.) Her parents didn't love her, so she developed a thirst for power, doing away with everybody in line for the throne, until Triton banished her with two dopey, roller-skating, electric eel henchmen. Of course she wants revenge. (You can never go wrong adding sibling rivalry to a Disney story.) Also, her fondness for corny aquatic wordplay — like "squid-pro-quo" — hints that she might have grown up less witchy if anybody had laughed at her jokes. 

Eric Kunze as Prince Eric evinces more nuances than his cartoon counterpart; he seems less callow and more emotionally fragile, but very nearly as dashing. Some of the new characterizations don't work as well: Ariel's sweet sidekick, Flounder, is no longer a kid but a teenage fish with a crush on her. It's sort of cute, but it also raises issues we don't want to think about, like the mechanics of interspecies marine dating, and the whole subplot gets dropped, so we never find out whether, or how, Flounder moves on from Ariel's rejection.

Another unresolved issue — unresolved in the movie too, but somehow less noticeable there — involves the human characters' fondness for eating seafood, boldly addressed in the glorious, darkly comic scene in which Sebastian falls into the clutches of Chef Louis (a delightful Jeff Skowron in an enormous, floppy toque). We just have to hope Ariel will take charge of the menu when she's queen. 

The ending has been streamlined and simplified. It's easier to follow, and it gives Ariel an active role in her own salvation — but it's also a little abrupt and anticlimactic, lacking any shipwreck whatsoever.

Amid the design team's many technical triumphs (and non-flying choreography by John MacInnis) is one questionable choice: In the undersea scenes, all the characters undulate rhythmically, as if they are being rocked by deep-sea currents or, perhaps, using invisible Hula hoops. It's distracting, especially at first, and although you do get used to it, it's never enchanting enough to justify the calories the cast members have to expend to keep it going. Of course, they'll all have amazing abs.

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"The Little Mermaid," La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (check website for additional performances). Ends June 26. $20-$70. (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310, www.lamiradatheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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