Is it such a bad thing to root for the villain, especially when she's having as much fun as Ursula, the power-hungry sea-witch in "Disney's The Little Mermaid"?
As played with gusto by Jennifer Allen in the national tour that runs through Sunday at the Orpheum in Minneapolis, Ursula is a supernatural showstopper. Allen's powerhouse rendition of "Poor Unfortunate Souls," a highlight of director Glenn Casale's glitzy staging, is as much a celebration of her character's prowess as it is about pitying fools. Hers is a standout performance in a show otherwise dominated by sweetness and chintz.
The musical by composer Alan Menken, lyricists Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater and playwright Doug Wright is part of Disney's stable of royal-themed stories. Adapted from the 1989 animated film and inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, the show revolves around mermaid princess Ariel (Alison Woods), who longs to leave her submarine realm for life on land. Her longings deepen after she saves human Prince Eric (Eric Kunze) from drowning.
Ariel would have to give up her tail and gain legs to live shoreside, though — a trick that that her Aunt Ursula could manage for a price. Ursula believes she should be on the throne instead of her genial brother, King Triton (Fred Inkley), a widower who wants favored daughter Ariel to marry her own kind.
The songs in "Mermaid" may not be as memorable as the best Disney tunes, such as the soaring "Circle of Life" from "The Lion King" or Menken's "A Whole New World" from "Aladdin," but they are solidly entertaining. "Under the Sea," a syncopated calypso number, was delivered with free-flowing wit by Melvin Abston as Sebastian, the crab charged with keeping wayward Ariel safe.
But the star of the show is Ariel, and Woods brings this cartoon princess to undulating life. Her pitch was as clear as the Caribbean on "Part of Your World," with phrasing and delivery that hewed close to the film. While Woods was impressive — especially considering she often is "swimming" in a harness that enables her to swoop around the stage — parts of her performance were undermined by sound issues during the first act of Friday's opening night.
"Mermaid" is peopled by undeveloped, stock characters floating around a fanciful realm. A middle-aged guy is not the show's ideal audience, however. That would be the trio of 12- and 13-year-old young ladies who volunteered their thoughts as soon as the curtain fell. Their verdict? This "Mermaid" is "cute" and "entertaining."