Review: The Rep’s “Little Mermaid” Proves Life is Hotter Under the Water

When The Rep’s production manager Rafael Castanera described the theater’s latest production to Alyson Courtney at KATV, he used three words that set off fireworks: Vegas, Calypso and fabulousness.

Castanera set the expectations high (as if they weren’t already) for the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s holiday show, Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” When I left the theater afterward, I realized his mistake: He was being modest.

The story carries out much like the movie with a teenage mer-girl unable to let go of her obsession with the world above and a mer-father unable to let the mer-girl go. Boy meets mer-girl, mer-girl makes a deal with a sea witch, sea witch tries to take over the ocean — you know the drill. But seeing this show is like seeing it all for the first time.

The curtains open and there is Ariel, played by Katie Emerson. The role fits Emerson like a glove (or a new pair of shells), making it hard to believe she could be anything else but the lovestruck mermaid with a voice the seven seas can’t stop talking about. What seals the deal, however, is how, well, animated Emerson is. Playing a character who gives away her voice for a large chunk of the show would cripple many actresses, but her expressions, her energy keep the audience captivated. Clearly she doesn’t underestimate the importance of body language.

As the object of our little mermaid’s affection, Shayne Kennon takes on the role of Prince Eric. It’s not hard to see why Ariel falls for the guy: He’s a sailor, he’s loyal, he’s royalty. But with Kennon at the helm, you can add “dynamic, charming and voice that can take down a sea witch” to that list.

Speaking of which, there’s no character that commands the stage quite like the witchy woman herself. Amy Jo Jackson as the banished baddie Ursula is the glittery embodiment of fantastical wickedness. Her costume alone is enough to leave your jaw on the floor (courtesy of Castanera), but Jackson unquestionably holds the audience prisoner with a powerhouse voice and irresistibly slippery sass.

Trying to keep Ariel in line is Sebastian, played by Cornelius Davis. He seamlessly assumes the position of totally needing a chill pill, but absolutely shines during the show’s biggest musical numbers “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.” If nothing else, let it be said of Davis that the man is a true performer.

Also in Ariel’s corner are two more familiar faces: Flounder (DJ Plunkett), who gets his own musical number and a fuller storyline, and Scuttle (Ben Liebert), who gives off a Billy-Crystal-in-“The-Princess-Bride” vibe and proves once and for all that seagulls definitely know how to tap dance.

The visuals in this show have built up quite the buzz, and for good reason. If you’re relying on this written review to describe the otherworldly costumes in “Little Mermaid,” however, you’re about to be sorely disappointed. There’s no way I can adequately depict each piece of broken mirror on Ursula’s tentacles, teach silver bauble in King Triton’s beard, each elaborate headpiece, each flowing tendril on each fin or the unending supply of colorful tights. That artwork is one to see in person in order to be truly experienced.

I had all of this and more offered for my viewing pleasure, but who cares? No big deal. I wanted more. I wanted more of Ariel and Eric’s chemistry, more of Ursula’s ego; I wanted more of the mega-talented Triton and the mer-sisters; I wanted more of the enchantingly creepy eels Flotsam and Jetsam played by twin brothers Jared and Zach Green; I wanted more of sweetly stuffy Grimsby (Jack Doyle), more of the acrobats and aerialists and way more of Luke Grooms’s laugh-out-loud Chef Louis.

I simply couldn’t get enough, and neither could the audience around me—including the little girls dressed in their Sunday best watching the stage with wide eyes, and the adults who got a little teary during “Part of Your World.”

Under the direction of Melissa Rain Anderson, The Rep’s production of “Little Mermaid” is a sweet swirl of magnificent visuals, staggering musical talent and unbridled nostalgia that stands alone as one of the theater’s finest.

The show runs until Jan. 3. For showtimes and more information, or to purchase tickets online, visit The Rep’s website. You can also call (501) 378-0445 or visit the theatre box office downtown at 601 Main St., Little Rock.

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