The Little Mermaid

It is a bitterly cold Friday night in Olney and the perfect opportunity to gather for the opening of the Damascus Theatre Company’s production of The Little Mermaid and hope to be warmed by a little Disney magic. The stage at the Carl Freeman auditorium features two impressive downstage set pieces – Ariel’s shrine stage right and Ursula’s lair stage left – and a platform a third of the height of the back wall with a projection screen behind.  The show opens with a lengthy overture and as the lights come up we see fabric stretched across the lower section of the stage to represent the water. Ariel (Kendall Sigman) makes a slightly shaky first impression vocally on The World Above as she glides across the stage in roller skate shoes and while it is an effective way of representing movement underwater we’re interested to see how this affects the choreography as the show progresses. Designer Bill Brown is off to a strong start as set pieces converge from both wings to turn the entire back platform into a ship and it’s an impressive transition into Fathoms Below with Prince Eric (Kevin James Logan), Grimsby (Ernie Poland), Pilot (David Robinson) and the Sailors looking striking against the blue backdrop.

Unfortunately, Director, Shelly Horn places much of the rest of the first act in the middle of the stage where there is no set with actors taking it in turn to walk downstage center (it becomes a procession) to deliver their solo. When the action does move to Ariel’s or Ursula’s location the lighting is a huge distraction as the actors are simply not blocked in the light. It is unclear how much of this is lighting design or technical issue but far too often we have people in semi-darkness. Despite an unsatisfying low key entrance, Becca Sears looks the part as Ursula in her squid dress and convincingly fitted wig and while the staging of Daddy’s Little Angel is unimaginative, Sears gives a fine vocal. Sigman overcomes what were perhaps early jitters and brings that Disney Princess quality to Part of Your World and despite the unseen orchestra being too quiet at times the show is definitely beginning to sound the part. Logan sings impressively and with feeling (especially on Her Voice) but that emotion vanishes in his line delivery and the dialogue between him and the Sailors before The Storm is completely flat. That isn’t the case for King Triton (Brian Lyons-Burke) as he thunders across the stage to destroy Ariel’s human shrine but despite a pleasing visual effect the lackluster accompanying sound and muted reaction from Sigman make the whole moment underwhelming.

The choreography of Cheryl Campo is also missing the mark. She’s in Love, featuring the Mersisters and Flounder (Nick Ramirez) is a huge lost opportunity and whether it’s the limitation of the roller skate shoes or just a lack of ambition, the routines are far too basic. That’s also the case with the big ensemble number, Under The Sea, with the added frustration that the platform is completely ignored while the lower level is restrictively overcrowded. Ramirez gives an admirable performance but it’s questionable to cast someone of his age in this role and it leaves the whole relationship between Flounder and Ariel feeling somewhat awkward.  The first act ends on the vocal highlight of the night with Sears terrific in her lower register as she belts Poor Unfortunate Souls.

The second act begins with Ariel trying to get accustomed to her new feet and she is helped by Scuttle (Jason Douds) and the Gulls in Positoovity. Most of what we have seen to this point has been movement rather than choreography so while it’s an unremarkable tap routine it’s a welcome change and a fun way to highlight some of the ensemble. There are a lot of set changes after the intermission and there are too many blackouts used for the transitions. Isolating areas of the stage with a stronger lighting design would have facilitated seamless changes of scene and a much better flow to the story telling. Some of the new locations are visually impactful and the simple tall white windows really pop against the backdrop for the interior of the palace. As Ariel sings Beyond My Wildest Dreams it would have been great to see Prince Eric silhouetted walking across the back platform but instead he wanders through the middle of the scene and leaves us (which won’t be for the last time) questioning exactly where we are?

Co-Music Director, Keith Tittermary brings a lot of flamboyance to the role of Chef Louis in Les Poissons but the reprise featuring a convoluted chase sequence between the Chefs and Sebastian (William Jeffreys) is completely under-cooked. The concept is fine but the execution is nowhere near tight enough for the comedy to land and needed another week of rehearsal at least. Kiss The Girl features Ariel and Prince Eric in a rowboat on the lower level of the stage surrounded by various aquatic ensemble members. Scuttle and the Gulls appear on the upper platform above the boat which as birds makes sense (with the fluffy white clouds on the projection screen further establishing it as the sky)…until they are joined by a frog and turtles. It is part of an overall inconsistent vision from the Director as rules are established (when and where the fabric is used to depict water for example) and broken just as quickly. If Only is the standout number of the second act with four locations isolated in in the light for Ariel, King Triton, Prince Eric and Sebastian. All four are in great voice with Sigman delivering her best vocal of the night – but even this highlight is distracting because of the choice of the positions and the unbalanced nature of the stage. There is more confusion to come in the finale as the shoreline, firmly established in the prior scene (a line in the sand if you will) is ignored as Maids appear in the waves and Chefs in the sky.

This is vocally a fairly strong show from the leads but it lacks a big ensemble moment and the choreography possibilities are almost completely unexplored. There are committed acting performances from Lyons-Burke, Sears and Jeffreys but they are given little support from the overall staging of the show while the potential of the set is under-utilized and the enjoyable costume design of Laurie Williams is overshadowed by the hugely disappointing nature of the lighting.

#tothepoint Rating: 48/100

You can view a full breakdown of the allocated points here.

Ticket Price: $20

Value Review: N/A

Our scoring system and our unique value for money guide only applies to productions that score 50/100 or higher. The Little Mermaid continues for The Damascus Theatre Company until November 19th.