Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Disney's The Little Mermaid
Hale Centre Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Bennett Allen Wood, Raymond Barcelo,
and Elyssa Blonder

Photo by Nick Woodward-Shaw
The songwriting team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman first found success by writing the score to the hit Off-Broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors and then won Oscars for their songs for the 1989 Disney animated film The Little Mermaid. Janet Maslin's New York Times review of that movie said of the film's song "Part of Your World," "Any Broadway musical would be lucky to include a single number this good. The Little Mermaid has half a dozen of them.' So, it was no surprise that Disney would adapt the film for the stage; it opened on Broadway in 2008.

While it may not have proven as successful on Broadway as their stage adaptations of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, The Little Mermaid features all of Menken and Ashman's memorable songs from the film and has proven to be quite popular in regional and youth theatres. Hale Centre Theatre's production has a great cast, excellent creative elements, and rousing choreography that results in a crowd-pleasing, fun and funny, family-friendly show.

The plot, which is based on Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairytale, follows the story of Ariel, a young Mermaid who is fascinated by the world above the sea. After she saves Prince Eric from drowning, she finds herself drawn to him and wants even more to be a part of the human world, but her father, King Triton, reminds her that humans killed her mother and that he has forbidden contact with them. Once Ariel realizes she is in love with Eric, she makes a deal with her evil Aunt Ursula, a sea witch who practices black magic and is seeking revenge from being banished by Triton, to transform her into a human. However, the deal comes with a catch: Ariel only has three days to get Eric to give her a kiss of true love to remain human or else her soul will forever belong to Ursula.

Doug Wright's book is basically a by the numbers retelling of the film plot but, it expands the events in the 80-minute film into a full-length stage musical with some additions to Ursula's backstory as well as fleshing out the characters of Eric and Triton. There is also an abundance of witty lines that play off the undersea setting and some nice additions to Ariel's friends, the crab Sebastian, the seagull Scuttle, and Flounder, the young fish who has a crush on Ariel. However, the ending, which mirrors the film, is a little confusing without the added benefit of animated effects and requires some prior knowledge of the movie for it to make complete sense. Fortunately, the score includes all of the toe-tapping tunes from the film as well as many new ones with music by Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater. While none of them are as excellent as the film hits "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl," many are very good, including the upbeat "She's in Love," the love ballad for Eric, "Her Voice," and a lovely quartet in act two that features Ariel, Eric, Triton, and Sebastian, "If Only."

Cambrian James' clear direction delivers comical moments that get big laughs and serious scenes that are endearing and emotionally rich. His staging keeps everything moving at a fast pace and his choreography is varied and well danced by the gifted cast, including many numbers that build into crowd-pleasing showstoppers. Hale's creative aspects are always impressive and for this production Tia Hawkes' costumes, Brian Daily and McKenna Carpenter's scenic elements, and Carpenter's props are a non-stop parade of colorful and imaginative designs, including set pieces that swiftly come together to form a ship on stage, and costumes that glow with day-glo pops of color to represent the undersea life or ones that light up to portray Ursula's two electric eel henchman. Taylor Tew's lighting is equally as impressive, with warm, bright colors for the daytime scenes set above the sea and cool, dark tones for those set at night or in Ursula's underwater lair. Lincoln Wright's music direction delivers bright tones and clear notes from the entire cast.

Elyssa Blonder exhibits the perfect blend of bright-eyed optimism, innocence, and youthful excitement as Ariel. Her singing voice shines on her solos and she projects clear emotional connections with the entire cast, including understudy Wesley Bradstreet, who is charming with a bright vocal delivery of his songs as Prince Eric, and Loren Battieste, who is stellar in his Hale debut as King Triton. Gina Guarino is simply delicious as the evil character you love to hate, Ursula. Guarino's commanding stage presence makes you follow her every move and her voice soars on her songs with immense clarity and diction. While Battieste may have a smaller role, he manages to bring deep emotion and a superb rich and deep singing voice to the role of Ariel's tough but loving father.

As Ariel's friend, the crab Sebastian, whom King Triton has directed to keep watch on Ariel, Trevon Powell leads two of the show's most well-known songs, "Under the Sea," and "Kiss the Girl," and does so with a warm and bright vocal delivery. He also has good comic timing plus the right combination of joy and exasperation that make the character a crowd favorite. Raymond Barcelo has been in numerous Hale productions and his performance of both the wacky seagull Scuttle and the humorous Chef Louis are hilarious, with sharp comic timing that gets big laughs and that also make his character one the audience loves. He also leads the second act number "Positoovity," which builds into a bright, bouncy, and big tap number that is well danced by Barcelo and the ensemble.

In smaller roles, Bennett Allen Wood is bright, funny, charming, and just a touch naïve as Flounder; Logan Holmes and Chris Reah are having a blast as those evil eels Flotsam and Jetsam; and Justin M. Howell is bright and fun as Prince Eric's guardian Grimsby. Also, Halle Glazebrook, Ariana Mai Lucius, Michala Montaño, Destiny Walsh, Brie Wadsworth-Gates, and Tawny Audi are humorous as Ariel's jealous sisters, and Jeremy Cruz, Joseph Strode, Albert Johnson, and Joshua South portray an endless assortment of mermen, sailors, and other undersea and above sea creatures.

Disney's theatrical adaptation of The Little Mermaid may not have been a huge hit on Broadway but when you have a stellar cast and rich creative aspects, as in Hale's production, it makes for a fun, colorful, engaging, and heartwarming musical comedy treat.

Disney's The Little Mermaid runs through August 13, 2022, at Hale Centre Theatre, 50 W. Page Avenue, Gilbert AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 480-497-1181

Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Howard Ashman & Glenn Slater
Book by Doug Wright
Producer and Casting Directors: David and Corrin Dietlein
Directed and Choreographed by Cambrian James
Music Director: Lincoln Wright
Set Technical Director: Brian Daily
Costume Designer: Tia Hawkes
Lighting Designer: Taylor Tew
Wigs & Make-Up: Cambrian James
Scenic Designer and Prop Master: McKenna Carpenter
Projections Designer/Sound Design/Stage Manager: Boyd Cluff

Ariel: Elyssa Blonder
Prince Eric: Wesley Bradstreet
Ursula: Gina Guarino
Sebastian: Trevon Powell
King Triton: Loren Battieste
Scuttle/Chef Louis: Raymond Barcelo
Flounder: Bennett Allen Wood
Flotsam: Logan Holmes
Jetsam: Chris Reah
Grimsby: Justin M. Howell
Atina/Ensemble: Halle Glazebrook
Allana/Ensemble: Ariana Mai Lucius
Aguata/Ensemble: Michala Montaño
Adella/Ensemble: Destiny Walsh
Arista/Ensemble: Brie Wadsworth-Gates
Adriana/Ensemble: Tawny Audi
Ensemble: Jeremy Cruz, Joseph Strode, Albert Johnson, Joshua South