Disney is good at a lot of things: fostering childhoods, making billions, building theme parks, handling lawsuits and turning an existing intellectual property into spun gold again and again. Whether they are turning one of their classic films into a new theme park attraction, making direct-to-video sequels to 50-year-old cartoons or molding beloved animated movies into Broadway musicals, they know what they're doing.
Before Disney and Broadway, "The Little Mermaid" started life as a fairy tale by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. Published in 1837 and adapted dozens of times over the years, the original story of "The Little Mermaid" was much darker than many subsequent retellings. One of the morals of the story basically blackmails children into being good so they don't add time onto the 300 years of servitude the Mermaid is involved in as she works toward obtaining an immortal soul and working her way toward the Kingdom of God. You know—typical children's story themes.
The 1989 Disney animated film is where most people became familiar with the story. It tells the tale of Ariel, a beautiful mermaid who falls in love with a human and trades in her lovely singing voice for a pair of legs and three days to make him kiss her. The story and characters were great, but it was the music and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken that captured the imagination of kids and families across the world. Ashman and Menken were also behind such memorable musicals as "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "Little Shop of Horrors." So even if their names aren't familiar, their work has become a thread of the American musical fabric over the years.
Disney had seen great commercial and critical success with their Broadway versions of "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast," so bringing "The Little Mermaid" to the stage was a natural fit. The show ran for close to two years – logging 685 performances before closing and eventually retooling for regional theater companies.
Thoroughly Modern Productions and its artistic director David DaCosta have never been afraid of mounting a massive production on the Central Oregon stage, and their version of "The Little Mermaid" is no exception. This is the same team that's put on "The Wizard of Oz," "Shrek," Beauty and the Beast" and "The Last Five Years" here in Bend, so it seems there's no production too daunting for this company.
"The music in this is Disney's best," says DaCosta about his excitement for this production. "The tandem work of Ashman and Menken, the story, the performers we were able to get. We were hoping for quite a few of them, but on top of them there were some surprises, which was nice. Things played out the way we were hoping in regards to who was in town and who was available. We knew it would certainly be a hit with the kids in our youth program."
TMP's youth program offers an intensive vocal and acting for musical theater course designed for kids across Central Oregon. A large part of the program isn't just the education, but the hands-on experience of participating in launching a full-sized performance at The Tower Theatre. The cast of kids in the program is then combined with the cast of adults who auditioned for the production, creating an environment where the next generation of actors is fostered by the current one.
I watched a rehearsal for the production at Terpsichorean Dance Studio, and even without the costumes, sets and special effects, I found myself imagining I was under the sea with everyone else. Shantae Knorr is a fantastic Ariel, whose bright red hair and big expressive eyes will make an entirely new generation of kids fall in love with mermaids. When she sang "Part of Your World," it didn't seem like anything less than watching parts of my childhood imagination come to life. Knorr is so believable as a Disney princess that it will be hard to convince children otherwise.
From Dan Schimmoller's goofy, warm-hearted Scuttle to Megan Robertson's perfectly calibrated Ursula to Ben Larson's show-stopping "Under the Sea" as Sebastian, this is a perfectly-cast show. There's a bit of Disney magic in that group of adults and kids, and everyone who sees "The Little Mermaid" will have a piece of that magic to bring home with them.
"The Little Mermaid"
Aug. 4 & 5 at 7:30pm
Aug. 6 & 7 at 2pm & 7:30pm
Tower Theatre, 835 NW Wall St., Bend