An azure seascape entices us to dive into a shimmering production of “The Little Mermaid,” and that’s the first eye-popping element of a lustrous evening.
With enchanting characters and a beguiling lush score, this inspired flight into fantasy sweeps us away into a whole new world, a tale as old as time, as another beloved Disney animated smash hit is realized on The Muny stage.
Now through June 29, the annual “kids show” bursts with color, imagination and the best Disney villainess since Cruella de Vil.
In the Hans Christian Andersen 1830s fairy tale, headstrong mermaid Ariel, youngest daughter of King Triton, dreams of what life is like above the sea. While in forbidden territory, she rescues a shipwrecked Prince Eric, and they fall in love.
But oh, are things complicated on the path to happily ever after. In the customary tradition of Disney makeovers, a plucky princess of the deep won’t be down for long.
Ariel’s army of wee fans came dressed in wispy seafoam and shiny aqua costumes, and left charmed by an ebullient ensemble who delighted the adults too.
Those smiles on a summer night were easily earned, as the crackerjack creative team refrained from cruising lazily with that Disney sure-fire formula. Their innovative flourishes refreshed this classic into a dazzling spectacle, brimming with heart and humor.
Director Marcia Milgrom Dodge deftly kept the action swirling, a never-ending rainbow of color, firmly anchoring the atmosphere between land and sea.
Sparkly “water girls” waved in motion while other neon-splashed youth ensemble members visualized schools of minnows. Michael Harp, of Swansea, is part of the cast.
The most striking aspect was the nifty integration of puppets, a la “The Lion King,” and that technique served the story well.
Early on, a puppeteer glided through the audience with a sea gull, who turned into wacky sidekick Scuttle. A very funny Jeffrey Schechter entertained as the daffy firecracker who mangles English and situations.
He also shined in the rollicking tap numbers, “Positoovity” and “Positaggity” in the second act.
While scenic designer Michael Schweikardt’s splendid aquatic fantasyland elicits ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs,’ it does not outshine the performances.
The evening’s definite ‘wow’ moment was the introduction of wicked octopus Ursula, with four dancers a marvel of syncopated motion as her eight tentacles. It proved worthy of its own ovation.
A purring Emily Skinner fumed and snarled with glee as the cunning uber-villain. The versatile actress, who made her mark as Dorothy Brock in last year’s “42nd Street” and as Phyllis in The Rep’s “Follies,” tore into a fierce “Poor Unfortunate Souls” with scene-stealing panache.
As her henchmen, Kevin Zak and Will Porter nimbly move as evil eels Flotsam and Jetsam.
A luminous Emma Degerstedt personifies free-spirited Ariel with an effervescent likability and sweet voice, delivering a dreamy “The World Above” and velvety “Part of Your World.”
The romantic couple could be bland, as the guy is minimally defined in the genre, a stock role that doesn’t require much more than handsome book-cover looks and heroic confidence.
However, Jason Gotay doesn’t phone in the love story. Quickly becoming a favorite of mine after his strong Jack in “Into the Woods” and amiable Sky in last year’s “Mamma Mia!,” he is a dashing Prince Eric, handling vocals and movements vigorously.
A cute couple, Degerstedt and Gotay gleam as the made-for-each-other pair.
“The Little Mermaid” ushered in a new era of Disney animation in 1989 and made composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, who died in 1991, the gold standard in original scores, expertly infusing movies with Broadway-caliber tunes. Adapting them for the stage was the next logical step.
But since its remarkable film debut, the show became overshadowed by the grandeur of “Beauty and the Beast” and the majestic “The Lion King.” The stage version premiered in 2008, with additional songs by Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, and book by Doug Wright.
It debuted at The Muny in a ho-hum presentation in 2011.
This second go-round is far superior in every way, reminding me why the movie was so appealing 28 years ago. The second act’s script remains a tad wonky, but this version managed to gloss over the rough spots.
With its contagious calypso beat, the centerpiece number, the Oscar-winning “Under the Sea,” is a sight to behold. James T. Lane is animated as the exasperated, steamed crab Sebastian.
Josh Walden’s choreography is breezy and fun. Another crowd pleaser is Frank Vlastnik as Chef Louis in the fast-paced farcical “Les Poissons.”
“Kiss the Girl” stands out, too, and the rising mist, courtesy of Matthew Young’s video design, enhanced the mood.
Spencer Jones is adorable as Ariel’s pal Flounder and booming-voiced Jerry Dixon is an imposing King Triton.
In their glistening jewel-toned outfits, the catty mersisters were funny, and showcased another facet of Robin L. McGee’s costume designs. McGee, of Highland, Illinois, chose iridescent shades of blue, green and purple for Ariel and used a broad palette for the large cast. Her ingenious designs are a sensational addition.
Music director Charlie Alterman keeps the tempo bright and brisk, while highlighting the sumptuous Menken balladry. This is a more conventional theatrical score, the kind that the pit orchestra excels on, night after night.
The lighting by Nathan W. Scheuer switched our ocean views superbly.
Silly, sassy and schmaltzy, “The Little Mermaid” exemplifies the carefully crafted adventures we expect from Disney.
But The Muny also looked outside the shell to shake it up a bit, serving up a bubbly light-hearted confection with uncommon flair.
“The Little Mermaid”
Where: The Muny Opera
When: Through June 29
Time: 8:15 p.m.
Box Office: 314-534-1111