The Little Mermaid (リットルマーメード )

リットルマーメード  (The Little Mermaid) (stage)

8/24/13 (Sat), Gekidan Shiki, Tokyo

This show had stumbled badly on Broadway some five years ago, blamed widely on a bizarre and overblown production by a European operatic director. (Videos of some of the numbers suggest that the critics were right.) Shiki has picked up another version that has been reconceived by an American designer, which has reportedly been well received in Europe. I didn’t see the original stage version and didn’t have any real interest in the new production, but when a friend offered the impossible-to-get cheap seats in the last two rows, it seemed worth a look. Those turned out to be great seats for that particular theater and show, with full view of the stage. I had never even seen the film, the spark for the Disney animation renaissance, so I checked that out earlier in the week. It turned out to be surprisingly trifling and by-the-numbers, especially compared with its first-class successor Beauty and the Beast. I was particularly disappointed by the lame villain and ending. But it did have a few songs that lifted it briefly into another dimension both musically and animation-wise, including Sebastian’s Jamaican-inflected “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl”. So it’s not a total waste.

The stage story follows the movie fairly closely for the most part. Some scenes, like the king’s birthday concert, should either have been dropped or rethought for the stage, and it seemed a slog overall. That said, there were some improvements, including a much better ending when the witch Ursula is killed not by the prince but by the main mermaid Ariel. Overall, the book is not this show’s strength. In addition, like The Lion King, the new songs were pretty limp, at least musically (the lyrics were translated into Japanese). It seems that Ariel isn’t the only one who lost her voice; Alan Menken’s songs from the film with his former lyricist, the late Howard Ashman, are noticeably better than the ones he wrote for the stage show with Glenn Slater, who can’t seem to bring out the same sound. I recall the same problem with Menken’s generic Sister Act score, also with Slater. It’s about time he started shopping for a new wordsmith.

Still, the book and music play distinctly second fiddle here to the staging, which came through with flying colors – literally, with lots of flying and lots of colors. I had wondered how they were going to portray the sea life, and it turns out to involve some intricate and well-choreographed wire play that kept several of the characters swinging above the stage for a good part of the time (notably Ariel, her father and the seagull), as well as black-hooded “kurogo” carrying tropical fish on poles. I could have done without the constant swaying of the mermaids to show that they were in the water, which became tiring after a while. The costumes were bright and efficient, though I wouldn’t say overly impressive. The mermaids were given long dresses rather than tails, which was visually fine and made it easier for them maneuver. Ursula’s henchmen (henchfish?) moved on roller skates, a clever touch that did make it look like they were swimming. The only real slipup was Ariel’s fishy companion, whose shirt was colored vaguely like his movie counterpart but otherwise looked pretty land-bound – a fin or two would have helped.

The set and staging offered plenty to enjoy, including the adept wire work throughout, the big ship carrying the prince, the small boat on the lake with the prince and Ariel, a dotted wall that looked like a Kusama Yayoi concoction, and a large picture book that became new backgrounds as the pages were turned. The best scene, predictably, was “Under the Sea” and its wild collection of fish, ray, jellyfish, flying mermaids and other sea creatures in a dizzying staging. It was a vast improvement over the Broadway version of the song as preserved on YouTube and really the only time that the show came alive. Unfortunately “Kiss the Girl”, the other song I looked forward to, couldn’t match its film incarnation.

Ariel had a lovely voice and did a nice job. She totally outclassed the prince, who had a thin voice with poor projection. Sebastian, apparently an old idol singer from the Johnny’s Agency idol factory, was lively enough, though it’s a pity that they couldn’t come up with some equivalent for a Jamaican accent – his songs don’t make much sense otherwise. (The French chef wasn’t very French either.) Others were fine within the strange robotic style that Shiki demands of them, which isn’t their fault.

The show doesn’t hold a candle to Beauty and the Beast in its book, songs, characters, production or imagination, and felt desperate at times. Admittedly it’s a lot harder to deal with an underwater story, but if they’re going to tackle it at all, they need to do it right. I wish they’d at least give the villain better motivation since that feels so tacked on; Disney can do better. Still, there were some fun moments scattered about, and while I can’t imagine this going back to Broadway even in its much-changed form, it was good enough for ¥3,000.

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