By Sarah Amador
If you are mesmerized by mermaids, the sea or a good love story, then you will truly treasure Spreckels Theatre Company’s production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid (April 29 – May 22).
I took my nine-year-old friend Hannah, and it wasn’t long before I understood how timeless this tale is. We can all identify with a yearning heart, a dream of something unknown, a wish for adventure.
Based on Hans Christian Andersen story, this story is nearly 200 years old. However, where the Andersen story turns gruesome, the Disney script picks up and spins towards a happy-ending. I didn’t think I could ever feel caught inside a Disney story, but immersed I was, from the first scene to the finale. Everything shimmers, glides, glows and bobs. The birds fly and tap dance. The special effects all but drown you in another reality. All of your favorite songs from Disney’s Little Mermaid come to marvelously to life, such as “Under the Sea,” “Part of Your World,” “Kiss the Girl” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls.”
Ariel, played by Julianne Bretan, is lovable—her face continually lit with a sweet yet earnest smile, her singing clear as a bell. She is also a look alike for actress Sierra Boggess who played first played Ariel in the 2007 Broadway show. The entire cast’s singing was excellent. Jacob Bronson is perfectly cast as gallant Prince Eric, his voice strong and deep. Ursula, played by Mary Gannon Graham, is evil but charming, coquettish and vindictive. I saw Graham last year in Mary Poppins, when she superbly portrayed the bad nanny, Mrs. Andrews. Her voice, like last year, was strong and rich. I said then that I would gladly see anything Graham was in, just to hear her sing, and I stand by that statement. One of the more powerful songs in the play is the quartet, “If only,” sung with gusto by Ariel, Prince Eric, Sebastian, and Triton.
Similar to Broadway, the Spreckel’s production includes the ingenious footwear that includes wheels developed for this play. Dubbed “merblades,” this invention creates a gliding motion for the undersea characters, so they appear to swim or dart across the stage. However, this production goes further than the Broadway play. Not only do they use wires to portray flying birds or princes falling into depths of the sea, but they utilize the Paradyne projection system uniquely developed by Spreckels Performing Arts Center. Combining still images and animations, this system creates multiple backdrop effects. Picture Ariel singing below the sea while great googly-eyed fish swim behind her; a giant moon rising and dancing over shimmering waves while Prince Eric sings longingly of love; a palace’s great columns and vaulted ceilings arcing overhead as Ariel experiences being human for the first time.
With the very first scene, Eric’s Ship, I was engulfed by another reality. The ship is at sea, dwarfed by rolling waves behind it and around it. A storm descends, the waves crash and surge. The effects are so good that I found myself looking carefully to see if, in fact, the ship was actually moving. I even felt a little seasick. I found myself thinking that for another laugh, the company could have added a gag prop of motion sickness bags placed on the armrests of the seats.
Projection engineer and green screen tech Morgan Hamilton-Lee did a fantastic job. In one of the last scenes, we watch Ariel fall from stage onto projection screen, seemingly falling far below into the belly of the sea. This could only be created with a green screen. In one of the Prince’s solos, Her Voice, there is an actual shimmering effect of moonlight overlaid upon an animated projection of rising and falling water. For a spell, I actually felt like I was at one of my favorite seaside coves on the Sonoma Coast.
The talented award-winning team of directors has done it once again. The audience is provided with an adventure of the highest order with ultra-creative Director Gene Abravaya (also responsible for the projection design), choreographer Michella Snider, costume designer Pamela Enz, music director Tina Lloyd Meals, and set designers Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen. It’s easy to see why they have won awards from San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle for Best Stage Direction of a Musical (Gene Abravaya), Best Lighting Design (Eddy Hansen), and Best Set Design (Eddy Hansen and Elizabeth Bazzano).
Choreographer Michella Snider showed originality by replacing dancers in place of backdrops. For example, instead of having a painted backdrop of Ariel’s collection of human belongings in her cave (as in the Broadway play), the items were sewed onto suits worn by actors. Later, these same actors donned seaweed suits, and then moved to simulate flowing seaweed. During Kiss the Girl, the actors were in suits of white lily pads, and spun around Eric and Ariel’s boat in a ballet performance complete with splits and pirouettes. The choreographed scene of Chef Grimsby trying to catch Sebastian for dinner was also a favorite, and had the audience laughing from beginning to end.
Costume designer Pamela Enz went overboard with creativity (just as she did in Mary Poppins). How do you make an umbrella into a jellyfish? With lights, translucent flowing fabric—really, I don’t know. You’ll just have to go to the show. She artfully created an undersea world, animals, and period pieces.
And of course the live music was fantastic.
At the finale, when the love story culminates in “boy finding mermaid-turned-girl” and at last they kiss, a shiver ran through me. I glanced at my young friend, Hannah.
“Are you crying?” she whispered.
“No,” I said. “Are you?”
She nodded, her eyes tearing. “I’m really emotional.”
I leaned closer and confided, “I’m not crying, but the hair on my arm is standing up on end!”
As we walked out of the theater, I asked Hannah what she thought of the play.
“Verrry creative,” she reflected, going on to talk about how cool the “merblades” were.
“Anything else?” I prompted.
“When boys can sing,” she said, “they’re amazing.”
To buy tickets for The Little Mermaid or for upcoming Spreckels’ productions at Spreckle’s Performing Acrts Center in Rohnert Park, visit http://www.ci.rohnert-park.ca.us/index.aspx?page=231 or call (707) 588-2226.