Review: Steel River Delights with Disney’s The Little Mermaid

Steel River Playhouse

Disney’s The Little Mermaid, featuring Alicia Huppman as Ursula, and Brian Rock as King Triton.

by J.S. Alleva

What could be better than a night filled with color and song, with buzzing community, Disney sweetness, and hearty laughter…  Steel River Playhouse hits one right out of the (water)park with Disney’s The Little Mermaid, their final production of the season.  Running through June 11, this Broadway-based musical is a rollicking undersea saga not to be missed.

The show begins in a magical underwater kingdom where Ariel, a young mermaid, yearns for a world beyond her own—the exciting, forbidden world of humans. Her father, King Triton, refuses her requests, but Ariel’s inquisitive nature persists. When a raging storm capsizes a ship, and Ariel saves the life of its captain, Prince Eric, she falls in love, deepening her desire to live in the human world.  With nothing but resistance from family and friends, Ariel is forced to ask the sea witch Ursula for help. Ursula grants her wish, but at an astronomical price. Ariel must give up her greatest gift AND win the prince’s kiss within three days, or lose her soul forever. What follows is a stormy battle between worlds, and between family, in a race against time that involves courage, sacrifice, friendship, and most of all, love.

Professionally directed and choreographed by award-winning Dann Dunn, the show’s economy of movement and simple staging allow the voices of this talented cast to shine.  As the scenes progress, the dancing grows ever more complex with larger troupes, swirling fabric, a multitude of sea creatures, and, in one case, a web-footed tapping explosion. Dunn’s direction is most evident in the emotional depth of the leads and the warm feeling of camaraderie that flows throughout the cast.

Ariel, expertly played by Amanda Morrell, shines with wide-eyed wonder, childlike spunk and a nightingale voice, the true hallmarks of a Disney princess. Morrell’s endearing performance soars in “Part of Your World” showing a sparkle rarely seen outside of Disneyworld.

John DiFerdinando brings disarming genuineness to his portrayal of Prince Eric. His soul-penetrating vocals in “Her Voice” and sweet earnestness in “One Step Closer” make him a serious talent to watch.

Ariel’s six mersisters create the perfect catty cluster, capturing a variety of girlish antics, each with a unique and full-bodied character of her own:  Andrina (Stephanie Chappelle), Adella (Nicole Simpkins), Atina (Courtney Harris), Alana (Madison Devlin), Arista (Samantha Dobson), and Aquata (Emily Reitz). The sisters also double as the wacky, human princesses in “The Contest.”  Their carefree humor and impressive harmonies are showcased best in the uplifting “She’s in Love,” shared with a spectacularly-adorable Flounder played by Olivia Reitz. Olivia’s Broadway-caliber performance brings unexpected nuance, and a serious ‘warm fuzzy,’ to the role.

Alicia Huppman packs a vocal wallop as Ursula, the sea witch, and her character’s wickedness blossoms most fully in the show-stopping reprise of “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” Ursula’s minions, the moray eels Flotsam (Jordan McAndrew) and Jetsam (Anastasia Moskal) cause major goose bumps and raise the ‘creepy’ factor with their sinewy, sinister rendition of “Sweet Child.”

Ariel’s caretaker, Sebastian the crab, is played by Tyreese Kadle with a shy and subtle humor. His witty asides elicit chuckles throughout the show, and his crowd-pleasers “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” bring a gaggle of sea creatures onstage for two lilting, harmony-laden, upbeat island favorites.

Brian Rock’s King Triton shows fatherly concern and righteous anger in a bold attempt to hide his own fear of the human world.  Rock’s powerful voice adds a welcome depth to the full ensemble numbers.

The outrageously-goofy seagull Scuttle (Lisa Hendricks) tortures the English language with outright glee in “Positoovity,” a laugh-out-loud romp, complete with knee-slapping, feather-flying, tap-dancing craziness.

A favorite stand-out performance is Chef Louis in “Les Poissons,” sung with gusto by Sebastian Antonio, whose uproarious characterization of this maniacal, cleaver-happy cook sends the crowd into hysterics.

The deeply-moving quartet “If Only” features heart-rending vocals from Ariel, Prince Eric, Sebastian and King Triton, bringing the height of emotion to one of the most powerful songs in the show.

Grimsby, manservant to the prince, is adeptly played by Tom Pitt. His hilarious bout with sea-sickness sets a jolly tone early on. His later comment to Ariel, however, which states that “we shouldn’t wish for impossible things”, sends a deeper ripple through the story.  Hoping against the odds may seem futile, but there is treasure to be found when we, like Ariel, brave the storm of naysayers and stay the course for our true desires.

The Little Mermaid set, designed by Josh Gallagher, features large painted stone/coral formations that serve as both undersea kingdom and human world, utilizing clever change-outs in the arches, morphing between shelves for Ariel’s treasures and the Prince’s ballroom windows.  The scenes are further enhanced by drifting mists, swaying seaweed and an array of dangling sea objects.  With lighting designed by Jerry Jones, the backdrop alternates between hues of sea and sky, offering a sense of time and place, and ‘sun rays’ streaming from above add to the water illusion.

Musical direction by Melissa McVaugh is revealed in a rich and diverse ensemble of voices, with powerful, tight harmonies, clear enunciation, and a balanced sound quality.  When a head-mic accidentally detaches from a cast member, the sound never waivers, remaining clear, melodic and consistent throughout, a mark of good management by Sound Designer Mark Evers and Technical Director Chris Kleckner. The live orchestra, conducted by Barbara Newberry, is fully-hidden on a loft behind the stage (lest you think it is a recording,) and their strong musicianship provides a well-balanced undercurrent for the resonant voices of the cast.

The brightly-colored costumes, created by designer Jenn Povish, bring to life the undersea and human worlds, with a clever collection of textured sea creatures, shimmery mermaids, stalwart sailors, dignified human royalty, feathered seagulls, and just enough sparkle to keep the Disney magic alive.  Stage management for this show is provided by Anna Taylor and Kevin Sene.

If you’d like an evening of heart-warming fun, look no further than Steel River Playhouse and this season’s production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, a musical adventure that will have you and the whole family falling in love with a delightful cast of characters.  It’s a show for all ages, performed by a theatre company that fulfills its mission, radiating a love of the arts and a love of community.

The show is performed in two Acts, with a 15-minute intermission.  Music by Alan Mencken.  Lyrics by Howard Ashman & Glenn Slater.  Book by Doug Wright.

Refreshments (with colorful “sea”-themed cookies and drinks) are available in the lobby café, and permitted in the theatre as well, so visitors need not rush to finish before the show.

If you go, remaining dates are:  Fri June 2 @ 8pm; Sat June 3 @ 2pm & 8pm; Sun June 4 @ 2pm; Thur June 8 @ 8pm; Fri June 9 @ 8pm; Sat June 10 @ 2pm; Sun June 11 @ 2pm.

** Special Event: Bring the kids for oceans of fun at the “Barnacle Bash” from 12:00-1:30pm on Sat June 3, before the show. Mermaid-themed crafts, snacks and a meet & greet with cast, including autographs and pictures with Ariel and your favorite characters. Tickets are sold separately, and available online or by calling 610-970-1199. **

BONUS:  Until June 30th, Steel River Playhouse is offering discounted subscriptions for its 2017-2018 season.  [Insider info:  Next season will feature the directorial work of The Little Mermaid’s John DiFerdinando, who will be directing She Loves Me. If he directs as well as he sings, we are in for a treat.]

For more info on this and upcoming shows, contact:

Steel River Playhouse 245 E. High Street Pottstown, PA 19464 610-970-1199 www.steelriver.org