I love the jellyfish.
The Good Company Players production of “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater unleashes a tsunami of visual fun. This clever and warmhearted show is soaked with creativity, from the clever costumes and impressive scenic design to the projected bubbles that make you feel as if you’re truly under the sea.
But my favorite moment is when the jellyfish appear. Three of them (Ethel Birrell, London Garcia and Cyndi Wristen) “float” across the stage, and the simplicity of Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s design (executed by Gabrielle Burton of the GCP scene shop) is touching. Each woman wears a long, lighter-than-air white dress and holds a transparent umbrella with white puffy tendrils attached. The crowning glory: a multichamber hat covered in layers of iridescent fabric accented by strings of LED lights, which in the duskily lit depths of the sea offers an ethereal glow.
It’s obviously a person dressed up as a jellyfish, of course, but from a distance – and thanks to Andrea Henrickson’s spiffy lighting design, which uses moving lights and special effects to capture the ebb and flow of water – it doesn’t take much for your brain to take the leap.
And that’s the appeal of a show such as this: The charm isn’t found in realism but in a cartoonish, anthropomorphic giddiness. It’s Disney. No surprises. If you don’t like your crustaceans to sing and dance, park yourself in front of a National Geographic special.
The story of Ariel, the mermaid who trades her beautiful voice for a pair of legs and a chance to woo a prince and comingle with the human gene pool, is well known. Suffice it to say that millions of little girls (and likely many of those who have since grown up) have more of a connection with the happy underwater goodness of “The Little Mermaid” than with the actual cold, dark and brutal ocean itself. The food chain according to Disney is a pretty shell necklace, not any sort of acknowledgment of big-fish-eats-little-fish truth.
The story of Ariel, the mermaid who trades her beautiful voice for a pair of legs and a chance to woo a prince and comingle with the human gene pool, is well known.
Granted, “The Little Mermaid” isn’t the strongest Disney musical out there in terms of book and score. But as he often does so well, director Dan Pessano is able to latch onto the human aspect of the story while still creating a stirring sensory experience.
Emily Pessano is strong in the title role. Her vocals are sweet, bringing the expected cordiality to such hummable numbers as “Part of Your World,” but her performance is never syrupy. It’s not as if her Ariel burns her bra – do mermaids wear undergarments? – or outwardly rails against the Disney princess persona, but there’s a bit of steel there, a modicum of “Broad City” in the midst of Stand By Your Prince uprightness, that gives the role a nice edge.
William Bishop is sturdy as the square-jawed Prince Eric, offering a stirring version of the song “Her Voice.” Roger Christensen gives us a pleasingly huffy Grimsby, the prince’s guardian. Greg Ruud provides gravitas as King Triton, and Juan Danner is a comic highlight as the flummoxed Sebastian.
Brianne Janae Vogt delivers a memorable performance as Ursula the Sea Witch – all eight tentacles of her – as she growls and belts her way through the show in the tradition of all great Disney villainnesses. Her henchmen, the eels Flotsam (Alex Figueroa) and Jetsam (Tim Smith), are vocally and comically deft as well. (Emily Pessano’s makeup and hair design is stellar throughout).
I laughed a lot at Ethel Birrell’s Chef Louis (even though I couldn’t understand many of her lines – perhaps her accent is ah-beet-ah too-ah theeeck) wreaking havoc once Ariel is a landlubber loping about the prince’s palace.
Ashley Wilkinson’s choreography, which takes full advantage of the fluidity of Heelys roller shoes, felt a little jumbled and underwhelming in the “Under the Sea” show-stopper number. (Putting lots of people on the small Roger Rocka’s stage can be tough challenge for a choreographer.) More than that, I wanted a little more joy and confidence from the performers in that song. My favorite dancing in the show is in the standout “Positoovity” number, led by a rousing Camille Gaston as the lead gull Scuttle and flanked by sidekicks Jason Danner, Michael Flores and Connor Pofahl.
The company continues to move forward with the use of video projections (designed by Don Thompson).
It took millions on Broadway to re-create the Disney movie on stage. Good Company Players obviously doesn’t have those kinds of resources, of course, but in a small-is-bigger way, David Pierce’s inspired scenic design gives the show a more intimate and emotional feel than the mega-budget version I saw in New York.
Maybe I like my oceans a little less wide. For this title, I’ll take “…maid” in Fresno.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid
- Through May 15.
- Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, 1226 N. Wishon Ave.
- www.gcplayers.com, 559-266-9494