Does any entertainment empire hold as much power as Disney? I mean emotional power, the ability to summon the collective childhood nostalgia of an entire generation raised on Disney’s animal sidekicks and dead-parent plots. Everyone has a favorite.
So it’s a source of both excitement and anxiety whenever Disney announces a new live-action adaptation of a classic animated film, or Centenary Stage Company in Hackettstown performs a run of the musical version, Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” running now through December 10.
As adults, we go hoping the production will be quality and the kids will stay mostly quiet. But as former kids, we’re trusting this theater company with our whole heart.
Will the singers nail the songs that we sang as children, over and over, until our mothers threatened to throw the VHS tape into a firepit? Even if we know we imprinted on those classic characters through younger, less cynical eyes, we still want to know: can the theater company get it right?
Good news– they can, and they have. Centenary has produced a whimsical and exuberant rendition of “The Little Mermaid” that will gratify your inner child while delighting any other children that might come along.
Let’s start with the obvious first question or, at least, the question that preoccupied me going in: how did the set designers depict the underwater scenes, a setting that’s hard to pull off onstage? Instead of counting on technical wizardry, the show depicts the undersea setting of Act I through selective set pieces, backdrops and light designer Joyce Liao’s understated spotlights.
When a storm needs to roll through, or choppy waters trouble the ocean, a dance troupe capers across the stage waving fans or scarves in synchronized waves. It’s a fascinating device, using dance movements to enact the motion of the sea. Unexpected, sure, but the visual symbolism works. It’s inspired and dynamic, and halfway through Act I, your brain simply accepts it all as natural.
Which is great, because then you can focus on the story and the glittering talent of the actors who bring it to life. Fans of the classic animated film and/or the more recent live-action adaptation will recognize the major plot points. Ariel (played by Arianna Cacioppo, a living embodiment of the Disney princess archetype) is the titular little mermaid who longs to escape the loving overprotectiveness of her father, King Triton (Patrick Cogan with an appropriately impressive baritone).
Her plans will play into the schemes of King Triton’s evil sister, the sea witch Ursula (Cassandra Lindeblad, a deliciously wicked diva). When Ariel falls in love with Prince Eric (a charismatic Luis Rodriguez with big leading man energy), she’ll give up her voice to become human and win his love, aided by her friends Flounder the fish (an adorable and kinetic Katie O’Shea) and Sebastian the crab (Na’Jee Tariq bringing spectacular presence to a role that could have been merely comic relief).
The book, handed down from the Disney Powers That Be, invents a few changes for the stage. Some bring clever improvements, like the segment introducing a new mode of communication between the now-mute Ariel and Prince Eric. Others add depth to side characters or streamline the plot for the stage.
But those big moments that your inner child remembers from that long-gone VHS? They’re here, and they hit hard. Cacioppo’s “Part of Your World” lands as the soul-opening tearjerker it ought to be, aided by a poignant touch of stagecraft. Lindeblad’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is a spine-shiverer, even if she makes Ursula sound like so much fun, it’s hard not to be on her side. The moments that the entire cast gathers onstage may be few, but when they do, the rafters rightly shiver.
The production pays homage to the classic traditions. In many ways, the phrase “good old-fashioned fun” applies. The choreography of “She’s in Love” will bring to mind musicals of eras past, “shoo-bop shoo-bop” and all. The musical even begins with an overture, playing snippets of the best-known songs a la symphony orchestra while the show’s logo projects onto the curtain. At times, the disciplined grace of the dance troupe calls back to a still-more-ancient theater tradition: blink, and you’ll see the traces of a Greek chorus in their almost-ritualized movements.
But this production is firmly a product of the present day, especially with its quirky costuming decisions. The sequined boots of King Triton’s guards stand in for glittery fish scales. Glowing gloves tell us that Flotsam and Jetsam are electric eels. Flounder glides across the stage in roller sneakers and in a memorable moment, Scuttle the seagull “flies” in on a scooter.
The show’s parts, its uniformly strong talent, its inventive choreography, its cleverly symbolic set and costume design, add up to a soaring final total. As the cast took their final bow, little girls bounced up and down in the aisle waving frantically to the mermaids onstage, who beamed right back, blowing kisses. Somewhere in the audience, I overheard one patron say that this was the best show she’d ever seen at Centenary.
It’s hard to disagree. Judging by the packed house at a Sunday matinee, this is a show that ought to continue for several more weekends in an ideal world. Alas, in ours, this production has only a few showtimes left on December 6 through December 10. I can only urge you to get a ticket for the show’s closing weekend. You, too, will want to be part of their world.
Centenary Stage Company’s production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid runs until December 10 at Sitnik Theater in Hackettstown. For more information, visit https://www.centenarystageco.org/csc-the-little-mermaid.
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.