By Barry Reszel
Paramount Theatre’s holiday season production of The Little Mermaid ought to have some Lake Buena Vista-based Imagineers worrying about job security. Artistic Director Jim Corti, Director/Choreographer Amber Mak and their entire sick-talented team, backstage and on, are somehow out-Disneying Disney.
This is Hamilton for the pre-teen set. Any 5- to 13-year-old lucky enough to experience this production will forever compare future theatrical experiences to this one. And oh yeah, older kids of all ages will love it, too.
What’s most remarkable about this Little Mermaid is its full, brilliant immersion (make that submersion) of the audience into the aquatic world. It’s the ultimate challenge of the piece, one the director intuited from the get-go. “When Jim asked me to bring this show to life on stage at Paramount, I immediately had reservations,” Mak wrote in her Director’s Notes. “How do you bring life to sea animals and mystical characters? How do you make a beloved animated film into a live, theatrical experience?”
Her answers to these questions? Jeffrey D. Kmiec. Theresa Ham. Jesse Klug. Mike Tutaj. Adam Rosenthal. Katie Cordts. Jesse Mooney Bullock. Amanda Relaford. Ethan Deppe. Susan Gosdick. Jinni Pike. Jonathan D. Allsup. Trent Stork. Megan E. Farley. Tom Vendafreddo. Kory DAnielson. Rose Quealy. Kaylee Oost. Jason Pikscher. Matt Guthier. Alex Buholzer.
Yes, every stunning theatrical experience is fashioned by the work of many hands too often unnamed in reviews. What’s different here is that each of these artists’ specialties are so subtly melded to those of their counterparts that they must be considered as one. It’s impossible to know where Kmiec’s jaw-dropping scenery ends and Klug’s stunning illuminations pick up. Ditto for Ham’s costumes and Cordts’ wigs, hair and makeup. And Relaford’s props vis-à-vis Mooney-Bullock’s puppets. All of these folks are in the room where it happens. Indeed, if there was a Jeff Award for “Best Ensemble—Backstage,” this group would be the slam-dunk favorite.
All of their magnificent work is enhanced by a superbly talented cast whose effervescent members sing, sway, dance and morph into their various human, aquatic and mystical characters needed for the retelling of Ariel’s quest to be understood and follow her dream to be part of the human world. The Little Mermaid is actually a Danish fairy tale written in 1836 by Hans Christian Andersen that leapt into American pop culture with 1989’s Disney animated feature film. The stage musical, with book by Doug Wright, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman (written for the film) and additional lyrics by Glenn Slater, played 685 Broadway performances between January 2008 and August 2009. A full production history and plot synopsis may be read here.
To be sure, the memorable movie soundtrack is in tact and so brilliantly sung audiences will be looking for a cast recording (alas, there is not one featuring this cast). “Part of Your World?” “She’s in Love?” “Under the Sea?” “Positoovity?” “Kiss the Girl?” Yep, yep, yep, yep, yep and yep. And many more.
It’s all led onstage by gorgeous Kari Yancy as Ariel. The actress who knows a little about storybook whimsy (Jane in Tarzan, Wendy in Peter Pan, Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and a stint at Disneyland, are among her credits) is one magnificent mermaid. Innocent, tender and kind with a voice so angelic the villainess Ursula wants it for her own, Yancy delivers Ariel on every possible level. Here’s hoping this Chicagoland role is her first of many to come. So too does her counterpart, male lead Devin Desantis, a Paramount and Chicagoland favorite leading man, match her good looks and stunning vocals. His parts in “Fathoms Below” kick off the rousing songbook dotted with soaring solos by the leads: “Part of Your World” (Yancy), “Her Voice” (DeSantis), “If Only” (Yancy) and “One Step Closer” (DeSantis).
The romantic duo is surrounded by a school of talent. Christina Hall is a splendidly eery Ursula and Evan Tyrone Martin a studly, powerful and ultimately tender King Triton. Sidekicks Flounder (played opening night by Ricky Falbo who shares the role with Murphy Bryn) and Scuttle (Michael Ehlers) are simultaneously puppet masters and musical theatre triple threats. Falbo’s “She’s in Love” with the Mersisters (Ciera Dawn, Megan E. Farley, Allyson Graves, Mallory Medke, Zoe Nadal and Haley Jane Schafer) is stellar. Area favorite George Keating does phenomenal double duty as Grimsby and Chef Louis, leaving audiences an indelible comedic memory with his rendition of “Les Poissons” in Act 2.
Deserving a paragraph of its very own is the flawless performance of Jonathan Butler-Duplessis as Ariel’s flawed caretaker, the crusty crustacean Sebastian. His puppetry, featuring constant interaction between the actor’s human body and the hand puppet is truly magical, making their separation in Act 2 particularly poignant. And the magic continues with Butler-Duplessis’ splendid singing voice. His “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” are truly the production’s showstoppers, impeccably sung and featuring the in-your-face illustration of every single piece of Corti and Mak’s über -professional onstage and backstage talents, simultaneously.
Paramount Theatre never shies from raising the bar for quality and creativity in its productions, and The Little Mermaid is its latest, greatest example of musical theatre at its absolute apex.
So to adults with children in their lives wondering how they might create a holiday memory with some of their seasonal spending, click on the ticket link the paragraph below. It’s a whole lot less expensive than a trip to Disney World or New York, and the experience offered by visiting this stage in suburban Aurora is every bit as memorable.
Paramount Theatre presents Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” through January 15, 2017, at 23 E Galena Blvd., Aurora. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Liz Lauren.