Director Michael Brindisi needed to check a few key boxes on his list of “Things I have to do to stage a successful ‘Little Mermaid.’”
To wit: Find an irresistible slip of a girl with big, tousled hair, an innocent smile and a voice like an oriole. Give her the role of Ariel, the little siren who longs to live with humans. Then, find an equally winsome young lad, lanky and fair, and cast him as Eric, the prince smitten by Ariel’s haunting song.
Done and done.
In Caroline Innerbichler and Tyler Michaels, Brindisi has found the perfect combination to lead Chanhassen Dinner Theatre’s Midwest premiere of “Disney’s The Little Mermaid.” There certainly is more to recommend in this cute, colorful production, but it all begins with the charisma of Innerbichler and Michaels.
The musical is based on Disney’s 1989 animated film, with songs by Alan Menken and Howard Asher. Playwright Doug Wright (“I Am My Own Wife”) whipped up the script. Lyricist Glenn Slater contributed new ditties for the stage show.
Critics torpedoed it on Broadway, and the boys brought it back to dry dock for repairs. By many accounts, it is an improved confection, although you would never consider this a great or memorable musical. The stage show has the look of a cartoon and the second act gets frustratingly tiresome as we grind toward the inevitable storybook conclusion.
At the core, though, is the love story between a sea nymph and a prince — a guileless romance that Innerbichler and Michaels inhabit fully. How could you not root for these two? It would be like kicking little kitties.
Brindisi’s supporting cast includes the rumbling baritone of Keith Rice as King Triton and the deliciously comic Kersten Rodau as the evil sea witch Ursula. Jay Albright sinks his beak into the clueless yet confident Scuttle, the malaprop-dropping seagull. Andre Shoals is less satisfying, with a bit too much ham as Sebastian the Caribbean-tinged crab tasked with protecting Ariel.
The production sings beautifully and sounds great with Andrew Cooke’s band. Tamara Kangas Erickson finds new ways to keep the dance fresh and bubbly.
Which brings up the issue of creating the illusion of being “Under the Sea.” Brindisi wisely uses Sue Berger’s lighting design to wash the stage in blue and it’s easy to simply assume we are in a world of sea foam. This is pretend after all, isn’t it?
One other thing Brindisi likely had on that to-do list was to ask costume designer Rich Hamson to create a sea of meringue colors, tentacles and talons. Hamson is just the best. Nayna Ramey’s set complements the glittery production values with a candy-coated color scheme, and clever set pieces such as Ariel’s clamshell bedroom.
And then there are those two kids. Aren’t they adorable?