Whenever I told anyone I was seeing The Little Mermaid the musical, they would inevitably begin to compare it to The Lion King, that other Disney musical based off of a beloved Disney movie. Now that I’ve seen both shows, I can unequivocally answer the question as to whether the Lion King and Little Mermaid are similar. And the answer to that is no.
Let me explain.
Besides the storyline itself, the biggest difference between the Lion King and Little Mermaid is the tone of it, the visceral feel of the production. If you’re looking for sweeping epic, majesty and all sorts of heroics and tragedy, then Lion King is your cup of tea. (I mean, when I saw Lion King, I cried during the Circle of Life opening number. It was breathtaking. I cried when Mufasa died. I teared up at the triumphant end.) If you’re looking for bright, bold colors, tons of fun, tons of glitter and shimmering fabrics and a man dressed in a giant crab suit then Little Mermaid is what you should see, hands down. (I didn’t cry in Little Mermaid, but I laughed. A lot. I don’t remember laughing very much in Lion King.)
It’s not that one production is better than the other. They’re both fun and emotionally satisfying, kid-friendly yet full of crossover appeal. There are ingenious uses of the stage by both productions, and I have to really give it up to scenic designer Kenneth Foy and lighting designer Charie Morrison of the Little Mermaid. They had that stage deep in the ocean one minute and in a beautiful seaside ballroom the next. Ursula’s lair was a thing of pure beauty. And how clever was the use of the translucent bubble screen during various key points in the musical, such as when Prince Eric went overboard or when Ariel was transformed? Trust me, when you see the scenes, you’ll know exactly what I mean. (It was like they were really under the water!! Great wirework by Foy and choreography by Paul Rubin also added to the illusion.)
Another thing the productions share is a great sense of the audience. Director Glenn Casale understood exactly who would be in his: small children. He made sure that each emotion was clearly on the sleeve of every actor. Ursula was bad to the bone. King Triton was that perfect father figure, a great blend of love and parental worry. Eric was dashing and Ariel was headstrong and lovely. The scary scenes were scary and the romantic scenes were romantic. There were no shades of gray to this production.
Now, about those performances….
Jessica Grove played the title role with passion and intelligence, and what I appreciated most was that she didn’t copycat the Disney version. She made the character her own, imbuing her with great little idiosyncrasies and characterizations. Her voice was powerful and melodic, not as sweet as the movie version but incredible all the same. Alan Mingo, Jr. as Sebastian easily had the biggest laughs of the night, as well as the best songs, Kiss The Girl and Under the Sea, infusing both with energy and flair. Scott Leiendecker and Sean Patrick Doyle as Flotsam and Jetsam were awesome, rocking some amazing hair and mesmerizing costumes. They were slimy in the best way. And then there was Liz McCartney, the witch of the sea. And man, talk about a show stealer. From her entrance from the shadows of her lair, wrapped up in thick, black tentacles, to the first time she opens her mouth to sing with one of the most impressive, expressive and striking vocals I have heard (ever!), she owned that character. And not to belabor the point, but that voice…the depth and complexity and color of it…chills! And the enjoyment she was having was clear. It made the audience love the performance even more.
The entire cast was amazing and they all came to vibrant life with not only Doug Wright’s book, Alan Menkin’s music and Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater’s lyrics, but Amy Clark and Mark Koss’s costume coordination and design and Ana Marie A. Salamat’s makeup design as well. From Ariel’s flowing dresses to Ursula’s Bride of Frankstein-like hair, the transformations were brilliant, and you’d only have to look at the program headshots to see what I mean.
All in all, if Lion King is like a Thanksgiving feast, then Little Mermaid is like raiding a confectioner’s shop. Beautiful, sweet, amazingly decadent treats that will stick with you long after the last bite.