Settling into my seat on opening night of “The Little Mermaid” at Theatre Baton Rouge, I noticed a friend’s absence a row back. His wife explained he didn’t want to see a show aimed at children.
Sometimes, the performance and production of a play are so good that it almost doesn’t matter if there’s a story line or not. This is one of those times.
Theatre Baton Rouge can usually be counted on to deliver in its summer musicals, but this time TBR outdid itself. “Mermaid” is a delight to the ears and a treat to the eyes, a show as ambitious as it’s attempted since … maybe ever. “The Producers” in 2008 was big, but nobody asked the Max Bialystock actor to sing while soaring over the stage connected to wires.
That, however, is what Emily Heck did often as Ariel, the mermaid who longs to live life on land instead of under water. Thanks to some extremely effective lighting, Ariel’s aerials depicted her (and others) as swimming, and her acrobatic embrace of this technique made it seem almost real.
But it wasn’t just the portrayal that makes Heck shine. She has the perfect voice for a Disney story star — mature, yet with a childlike quality that never makes you think she’s about to break out into an aria. Her tone is sweet, and her winsome manner makes her perfect for the role.
This was one of many excellent casting decisions by director Jenny Ballard. Another obvious one is Brandon Guillory as Prince Eric. Guillory has the chiseled looks and enthusiasm of a young Disney hero, and he sings his role very well.
Vocally, this play is tremendous. Not only are there many capable individuals, but the groups and choruses, with the exception of one song, have such crisp enunciation that the words don’t get lost.
Tony Collins’ solo in “Under the Sea” was that exception, probably a combination of his having to sing and dance in the middle of a whirlpool of other dancers and voices. But that song still remained fun to watch, in large part because of Collins himself. He’s an exceptional dancer and a charismatic presence as Sebastian, the crab assigned by Ariel’s father, King Triton (Chip Davis), to keep an eye on her. That leads to considerable hilarity both below and above the water, especially when Chef Louis (Enrico Cannella, another tremendous voice) attempts to add him to the menu.
Davis sings movingly in “If Only” and capably depicts a father concerned about keeping his adventuresome daughter far from human danger. It turns out, he was looking in the wrong place.
Dana Todd Lux seems to thrive in roles with a humorously evil twist (Madame Thenardier in “Les Miserables” and Miss Hanigan in “Annie,” to name two) and Ursula, Triton’s scheming sister, is right in her wheelhouse. From the cackle of her laughter to the throaty gravel of her most memorable lines, Lux hits all the right notes, especially in “Poor Unfortunate Souls” near the end of the first of two acts.
She’s assisted by Flotsam (Jacob Voisin) and Jetsam (Lauren Regner), whose ability to mimic an eel’s slithering motion give them a wonderfully menacing quality. The lights that occasionally flicker on their costumes are a nice touch, too, and they harmonize well in “Sweet Child” and “Daddy’s Little Angel.”
Other supporting parts have great moments: Thomas Jackson as Scuttle the gull, and Ariel’s sisters: Aquata (Sarah Fruge), Allana (Anna Shaw), Andrina (Sydnee Fuller), Arista (Holly Hutchinson), Atina (Megan Collins) and Adella (Jamie Dean Carley), form a classic ’50s doo-wop group singing “She’s in Love.”
There were a lot of bows that could have been taken off-stage: music director Jamie Leonard-Brubaker, choreographer Sonya Landry Blanchard, set designer Kenneth Mayfield, lighting designer Louis Gagliano and costume designer Crystal Brown. This is a tremendously involved show.
In other words, it’s not just kid stuff.