The bottom line
A fantastical under-the-sea set, flying mermaids and fish in neon costumes, spectacular singing and dancing and many touches of hilarity: Disney's 'The Little Mermaid,' playing at The 5th Avenue Theatre through Dec. 31, has all the ingredients for a holiday confection that will send the whole family swimming to joy. And while the story's feminist credentials could be stronger, Ariel (at least the Broadway musical version of Ariel) is a spunky, I'm-not-afraid-to-be-different character who proved deeper than this reviewer expected.
When I told a friend I was taking my son to see The LIttle Mermaid, she said "Yeah, I don't really like that story line." I get it. The basic plot — the girl who loses her voice to get the guy, and the whole idea that getting the guy is a ticket to happiness — is problematic.
But when my 7-year-old and I dove into the musical ourselves, we were surprised to find that Ariel is a stronger character than we remembered from the animated movie version. She's empathetic, independent and never lets others do her thinking for her.
Backing up: The Broadway musical The Little Mermaid is based on the hit 1989 Disney musical movie, which is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a rebellious young mermaid who, as she sings in the musical version, "wants more" than her below-sea life under the rule of her father, six older sisters and her dad's righthand crustacean, Sebastian.
Her father hates humans, though he has never met one himself. "They're all murderers," he says. Ariel isn't buying it, and decides to investigate for herself, swimming to the surface to make friends with a seagull and admire ships and humans from afar, with one particular human, Prince Eric, especially attracting her attention. When a shipwreck puts Eric's life in peril, Ariel rescues him ("girl rescues boy" — great headline) and falls, as they say, "head over tails" in love.
How can she get there from here? Help arrives in the unlikely form of her father's exiled sister, Ursula (Jennifer Allen), a larger-than-life octopus-like creature who offers her a deal: Ariel can try out legs instead of fins for three days, and if she gets the prince to kiss her by Day 3, she can stay on land forever. The catch? She loses her gorgeous voice. Never one to back down, Ariel goes for it, with Sebastian the crab trailing in her wake, wringing his claws and chastising her even as he tries to help.
Ariel (Diana Huey) and Prince Eric (Matt Kacergis) are likable characters and, as one would expect from a 5th Ave production, immensely talented, singing their anthems of longing and love with verve (Ariel's signature ode to her prince "Part of Your World" is beautifully executed). I personally wish Ariel was played with a few less giggles, but she is goofy and spunky; and many kids will relate to her comic attempts to fit in the world of humans (e.g. using a fork as a comb). She and Eric make the case they are both "a couple of misfits," a good message for any kids any time.
The strongest scenes and musical numbers have nothing to do with romance and everything to do wih fantasy and farce. Sebastian the crab (played with enormous charisma by Melvin Abston) is the audience favorite from the get-go, and clinches it in scenes such as "Under the Sea," a wild, Latinesque number where glowing fish dance amid floating jellyfish; and a hilarious dinner in the prince's palace where a French chef tries to serve up Sebastian for dinner. Instead, the chef gets dragged under the table in a crab-chef tussle that relieves him of his hairpiece and bloomers.
The ever-changing set and accompanying special effects are stunning. Mermaid, mermen and schools of colorful fish "swim" up and about amid sea bubbles and froth — yes, they are actually flying, and it leaves your child breathless. Ursula's henchmen — neon sea creatures who skate about — electrify the stage any time they're on. Triton reliably produces thunder and lightning; Ursula does as well.
Speaking of Ursula: She's the one scary note in the production, with a cackle and fearsome presence that will scare the youngest viewers but likely enthrall the older ones. She is evil — she alludes to killing her sisters to get to the throne — but her evil is somewhat explainable: Triton, her brother, inherited the kingdom and left her thwarted. Ursula, like Ariel, wants more. "You and I are very much alike," Ursula tells Ariel, "girls with ambition."
For older kids, Ursula provides a way in to an interesting conversation. "Are Ursula and Ariel alike?" you might ask, bringing up the scene near the end where Ariel overpowers Ursula. "Could there have been a happier ending to Ursula's story, too, one that doesn't involve a prince?"
Little by little, this is the way we subvert Disney.
Parents should know
Disney's 'The Little Mermaid' is rated G and appropriate for ages 4 and older. As noted, the storyline is a romantic fairy tale, with a focus on finding the prince of Ariel's dreams. There are a few mildly scary aspects to the play, namely any scene involving Ursula; and she does talk about how she got rid of her sisters to become queen (though my 7-year-old didn't pick up on this).
Also note that the show, including intermission, is 2.5 hours long so consider if your child can sit that long. Children have to be at least 4 to attend a 5th Avenue production.
See content advisories for full details.
If you go ...
Where: The Fifth Avenue Theatre, Seattle
When: The Little Mermaid plays through Dec. 31, Tuesday–Sunday
Ages: Kids have to be ages 4 and older to attend a 5th Avenue production
Tickets: Starting at $36, and going waaaay up. Buy online and keep an eye out for specials.
Tips: The 5th Ave Theatre is a shell's throw from lots more downtown holiday fun, including the Harry Potter Gingerbread Village at the Sheraton Seattle; the carousel at Westlake Center and the "snowfall" at Pacific Place. See this holiday magic story for details.