By Oline Cogdill
Disney has become the master of crossover entertainment that appeals to both children and adults, especially those who can tap into their inner child. Proof positive of this is Slow Burn Theatre Company’s highly entertaining, uber-energetic production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, running through Dec. 31 in the Amaturo Theater at the Broward Center.
Slow Burn has found that sweet spot, judging from the The Little Mermaid’s opening night audience that included many well-behaved children, adults accompanying their young theater-goers aa well as grown-ups without kids. Appealing actors with strong voices and enthusiastic dancers never let a moment lapse during The Little Mermaid, directed with finesse by Slow Burn co-founder Patrick Fitzwater and spirited choreography by Nicolette Quintero.
Fitzwater and company bring a fresh perspective to their version of The Little Mermaid, putting their version in its own class, apart from the myriad movies based on this tale, the most famous being the 1989 animated version and the live-action film released earlier this year. (To date, 12 movies, short films and TV series have been based on this tale of a tail.)
The Little Mermaid is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale that revolves around Ariel, the adventuresome, head-strong youngest daughter of King Triton who rules the sea world.
King Triton has forbidden all merfolk from contact with people, because he believes a human killed his wife.
But Ariel is fascinated by the human world above, collecting souvenirs that people have left behind or fallen overboard into the ocean. She falls in love with Prince Eric after saving his life following an accident at sea. He in turns falls in love with her voice that haunts him following his rescue.
Ariel desperately wants to be with Eric and makes a bargain with evil sea witch Ursula, who happens to be her banished aunt. Ariel will trade her beautiful voice for a pair of legs. If he kisses her in three days after meeting her, Ariel will be able to live happily ever after with Eric as a human. No kiss, no happily ever after and Ariel will be a slave to Ursula who will also own her soul. Eric is instantly smitten when meeting Ariel again, but she cannot talk to prove she was his rescuer. Believing she’s the victim of a ship wreck, Eric takes her to his castle to recover—where she gets to wear a beautiful gown. Eric’s de facto guardian Grimsby wants Eric to be married as he turns 21 years old and ascends the throne. Grimsby suggests a contest in which all the region’s princesses sing to Eric so he can find his love—a kind of fantasy version of The Masked Singer or maybe The Voice.
Without a voice, Ariel relies on her exuberance with help from her friends including Flounder the fish, Scuttle the seagull, and Sebastian the crab.
Slow Burn has netted solid leads to swim in The Little Mermaid sea.
Sweet-voiced Melanie Fernandez as Ariel capably carries the musical with her likable personality, expressive face and song stylings both in ensemble numbers and her solos of “The World Above,” “Part of Your World” and “If Only (Ariel’s Lament).”
Two-time Carbonell nominee Nate Promkul makes a striking royal turn as Prince Eric, depicting the future king as a guileless, down-to-earth young man not yet sure if he has it in him to lead a country. Promkul has been showcasing his talents in recent roles such as Anthony Hope in Sweeney Todd and Gabe in “Next to Normal. The Little Mermaid gives him another chance to show his range.
Wilkie Ferguson’s strong voice and commanding presence shows the mettle of a true leader as King Triton, whose hatred of humans is understandable and whose love for his daughters is genuine. A parent isn’t supposed to have favorites but he clearly dotes more on Ariel among his seven daughters. Ferguson, who doubles as music director of “The Little Mermaid,” includes among his credits turns on Broadway in Porgy and Bess, “Motown and Wonderland.
Heather Jane Rolff is a true villain—you’ll want to gleefully boo her—as Ursula, an aunt no one ever wants to be related to, who is aided by her two menacing henchmen Flotsam (Nolan Montgomery) and Jetsam (Matthew Brightbill), both of whom nail their parts.
Ariel couldn’t ask for better friends than Flounder the (Kyle Kemph), Scuttle the seagull (Rodney Holmes) and Sebastian the crab (a scene stealing Jesse Smith). Each of whom keeps the plot churning with waves of humor and verve as does Michael Materdomini as Grimsby.
Fitzwater also has assembled a talented ensemble pool, especially the young women who portray King Triton’s other six daughters, led by dance captain Emily Tarallo with Ashley Rubin, Casey Sacco, Celia Hinds, Kristi Rose Mills and Lauren Maria Abraham.
Shells, nets and barnacles effectively set the under the sea scenes that morph into the castle and Prince Eric’s ship. Projections of the ship, castle and the ocean enhance a sense of place as do the costumes, under Rick Pena’s supervision, and especially the innovative lighting design by Clifford Spulock. Adding to the production values are the strobe lights, bubbles (which several children tried to catch) and the occasional flying actor. A seagull needs to fly sometimes. But Slow Burn should dial back a bit on the haze that sometimes was so heavy actors were sometimes obscured.
The Little Mermaid is Slow Burn’s gift for the holidays. Check your inner child to enjoy this bauble.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid presented by Slow Burn Theatre Company runs through Dec. 31 at the Amaturo Theater, Broward Center For The Performing Arts, 201 SW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.; Wednesday, Dec. 27, and Thursday, Dec. 29, at 2 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 30, at 1 p.m. No performance on Dec. 25. Running time two hours, with one intermission. Tickets start at $54. Call (954) 462-0222 for tickets, at www.browardcenter.org or in person at the Broward Center’s Auto Nation Box Office. Info at www.slowburntheatre.org.