Volume 77 / Number 29 - December 19 - 25, 2007
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The Little Mermaid
Book and lyrics by Brenda Bell
Music by Mark McGee
The Players Theatre
115 MacDougal St., between Bleecker and W. 3rd
Sat. & Sun. through Dec. 30; special holiday matinees Dec. 27 and 28
Pre-show workshop at 11 a.m.; show at noon
(212-866-5170; literallyalive.com)

The little mermaids: Shelly (Stefanie Smith), Pearl (Jen Ponton), and Coral (Mary Fishburne), below as well

‘The Little Mermaid,’ Downtown and decidedly not Disney

By Michele Firpo-Cappiello

When three little girls leave a musical singing one of the songs they just heard, you know they’ve had a good time. The Literally Alive Children’s Theatre production of “The Little Mermaid” at the Players Theatre gave my 5-year-old daughter and her two friends just that experience.

The play is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s most familiar story with book and lyrics by Artistic Director Brenda Bell and music by Mark McGee. Bell names her underwater princess Coral (Andersen calls her only “the little mermaid”) and, like the original, tells the story of how she visits the land above the ocean, falls in love with a prince, and, after getting some double-edged help from a malevolent witch, is forced to decide what love means.

Remaining true to Andersen’s story demands that this version end differently from the Disney movie and stage musical, which means Bell runs the risk of not meeting the expectations of some in her audience. I applaud Bell’s effort to be true to the original and to tell a more complex story than the Disney version. Here we find a princess who teaches children how to be beautifully human and loving instead of simply pretty and in love. But it’s hard to fight the marketing of costumes, videos, dolls, coloring books, games, and so much more that Disney — with the complicity of many parents — throws at our sons and daughters. If your child is a fan of the movie, make sure to prepare her: She’s not going to see that clamshell-clad redhead onstage.

Literally Alive’s mission is to fire children’s imaginations and instill a love of reading by bringing literature to life in front of their eyes. Prior to each performance, Bell and members of the company and staff host an arts workshop that introduces the concepts of movement, music, and set design used to transform a book into a musical play. The boys and girls who participate talk about language, singing, ideas, and dance, finishing up in a happy chaos of sea creature construction. One of the joys this production provided my daughter was seeing her creations glowing on stage (thanks to a black light) during the show.

According to Bell, very few theater owners want to program children’s shows because a daytime performance means extra work for the theater staff. But, she says, Michael Sgouros, the owner of the Players Theatre, is committed to kid’s programming in general and Literally Alive in particular. “We really have a partnership here,” Bell says. “For children to learn, it’s important that the theater be family-friendly and that the children feel comfortable expressing themselves. We love our new home!”

The first moments proved that the production would use fun costumes and creative sets, with music, dancing, and songs performed with the energy and pacing necessary to keep children engaged. The performances were polished and some quite good. Rebecca Kopec filled the stage and theater with gleeful evil as the Fish Witch, selling her cabaret-style number, “Misunderstood,” with brio. Jamie Epstein was a standout in the ensemble and as Princess Christine. Griffin Parsons made a sweet King Neptune, whose songs were touching for parents, but unfortunately over the kids’ heads. Even so, despite the fact that the script and lyrics could be a bit wordy at times, the kids loved it.

The best moments of the show were the scenes with Coral (Mary Fishburne) and her sisters Shelly (Stefanie Smith, Literally Alive’s choreographer), and Pearl (Jen Ponton). Having two sisters myself, I felt Bell had written a true and witty portrayal of how sisters talk to and treat one another. The crisp writing and delivery allowed the actors to create a real connection with one another and the audience. Their songs, “Longing to See Anything but Sea” and “Deep Sea Blues,” were fun, comically played in the 1940s style of The Andrews Sisters. The three actors execute the difficult harmonies skillfully, thanks in part to the obvious talent of Musical Director Erica Kaplan, who also provides the lively piano accompaniment during performances.

Who was the favorite of the three girls with me? Shelly. Her pink costume and hair may have swayed their votes, but Smith’s giggly and girly delivery left her with little competition for the hearts of these girls. Coral was a close second for my daughter’s favorite, and she asked to meet Fishburne. One of the special touches of a Literally Alive production is access to the actors immediately after the show. In costume, they lined either side of the aisle and talked with the children, inviting parents to take photos.

Literally Alive’s production of “The Little Mermaid,” with its wonderful combination of theater experiences, is an exciting introduction to theatergoing. If your kids are like my daughter and her friends, they will have great fun and leave the theater reprising the opening and closing number, “One World in Two Parts,” by singing loudly, “Celebrate! Celebrate! One world in two parts, joining hands and joining hearts!” as they walk down the street.

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