The story of The Little Mermaid is so familiar that anticipation focuses more on how the touring company handles the problem that, like its best-known song, most of the musical takes place “Under the Sea.” You get a hint of the aquatic style while eyeing the bubbly backdrop during the overture. You expect a cast complete with several lead players from the Broadway run to create a light and fanciful fantasy.
But the big surprise for this viewer was to find flying that outdoes the famous aerial antics of Peter Pan and even Spiderman. Of course Ariel, the title mermaid, isn’t exactly an aerialist. Her flying is actually swimming. Since that’s her primary means of transportation, Ariel, played joyfully by Diana Huey, doesn’t just pop out a window like the boy who vowed to never grow up. She soars above the stage, zipping back and forth, and she isn’t the only one risking her well-being in the hands of the harness technicians.
Other swimmers undulate under the sea and the feathery sea gull Scuttle (James Torcellini) flaps around the Orpheum Theater when he isn’t tap-dancing in a novelty number called “Positoovity.” In other words, The Little Mermaid doesn’t spare the physicality, whether under the sea, in the air or whack-a-moleing in and out of the banquet table where a wild chef prepares sea food while his helpers and the red crab Sebastian (Melvin Abston) risk encounters with cleavers and other culinary weapons.
Sebastian, for those who missed the movie, was assigned by King Triton to chaperone Ariel, the king’s youngest daughter. So he follows her to the land above after she sells her soul to the sea witch Ursula (Meredith Inglesby), trading her enchanting voice for human legs so she can pursue her love for Prince Eric (Eric Kunze). This story line probably works best for the younger girls in the audience, and the rest of us settle for cringing at the awkward struggles of Ariel adapting to the limbs replacing her fish tail.
If the plot isn’t all that sophisticated, who cares? We get lovely voices and colorful costumes on the likes of Ariel’s pal Flounder and Ursula’s henchmen Flotsam and Jetsam. They spend most of Ursula’s scenes fondling her Octopusian appendages.
The closest this show comes to a powerhouse production comes in Act Two when Ariel, Eric, Sebastian and Triton form what the program calls a “quartet” for “If Only.” It falls short of the sort of show-stopper that works so well in Les Miserables and other more dramatic settings.
Yeah, it’s possible to pick at this take on the old Hans Christian Andersen story that inspired the iconic statue on a rock in Copenhagen. But it’s exactly what it promises to be and then some. You can find some loftier messages if you choose, perhaps that humans can be decent folk even while hooking and spearing the creatures who live under the sea.
Only Ursula fares badly in the end, and, of course, she had it coming.
The Little Mermaid runs through Sunday, Nov. 12, as part of the Omaha Performing Arts Broadway musical series with performances at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday at the Orpheum Theater, 409 S. 16th St., in downtown Omaha. Tickets are $35 to $125 at ticketomaha.com or by calling 402.345.0606.