Friday, January 25, 2008
The Little Mermaid
I try to be a positive person. I firmly believe this leads to positive experiences. But there are limits, and I encountered a big one last night. No amount of positive attitude could ever make sitting through “The Little Mermaid” a good experience.
In more than four decades of going to musicals I have never seen an uglier show. Scenic designer George Tsypin chose the most garish shades of green, orange, purple and blue imaginable, and Natasha Katz’s glaring lighting made sure we didn’t miss an inch of it. By the middle of the first act I was actually beginning to feel sick. Then I wondered, was this what Tsypin had in mind? Was he trying to make the audience so nauseous that we would really feel we were at sea? If so, it worked.
And the plastic! The waves weren’t just at the bottom of the sea, they came in sideways from stage right and left. The poor actors must have felt they were suffocating. I felt that way in the sixth row center. This is one show where a balcony seat would be an advantage, and the lobby or sideway would be even better. Earlier in the day I had been reading an article about the health danger of exposure to plastic in “O, the Oprah Magazine.” These performers will be filing some heavy duty liability claims one day.
The sets aren’t the only thing that makes this production hard to watch. Stephen Mear’s choreography looks like a class is aerobic skating. To simulate swimming, he has all the sea critters whizzing back and forth on those shoe skates children wear now, the ones that are sending them to emergency rooms in large numbers. The stage looks like a giant underwater roller rink. Doesn’t Mear know a skating show, “Xanadu,” is already being done, just two blocks away at the Helen Hayes Theatre? Far more enjoyably, I might add.
Toward the end of the first act the curtain descended right during one of the grating song and dance numbers, the house lights came up and we were informed that the show was being stopped for a technical difficulty. Who would have known? They could have kept going. No one would have noticed because the whole show is one big difficulty.
In thinking about it later from a distance -- could there ever be enough distance from this show? -- I did come up with a positive use for this production. The producers of this $15 million atrocity should market it to blind or seeing-impaired audiences. The story, after all, based on a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, is sweet, the music is pleasant and the singing is worthy. If one could be spared the hideous sets and unimaginative choreography, it wouldn’t be a bad experience. Maybe they could just turn it into a radio play so no one would have to endure the visuals.
The only times the staging was good was when Prince Eric fell from his ship, slowly plunging to the bottom of the sea, and later when Ariel, the Little Mermaid, swam up through the water to the surface. Entirely different set and lighting designers must have been involved with those scenes. The colors were subdued and the light was subtle. Those scenes were the simplest in appearance, and yet the most cinematic. The rest, with all those gaudy colors, were ghastly.
I felt sorry for the actors. Sean Palmer as Prince Eric and Sierra Boggess as Ariel were fine and should have been presenting this tale in a simpler production, something like “The Fantasticks,” which portrays a lovely story with beautiful music and no frills. I don’t know if it was my imagination -- was I just projecting my own misery? -- or if I was sensing something, but the actors looked uncomfortable. I really think they seemed embarrassed by the whole spectacle. Dear Tituss Burgess kept a big smile on his face the whole time. God only knows how he did it.
Tituss, John Treacy Egan, who had a nice scene playing a wacky chef, and Norm Lewis, who played Triton, the king of the sea, have all blessed my life personally, and bless many lives through their big hearts. Tituss sang last year at Broadway Blessing and wowed us with his gorgeous voice. He had spent time during the summer in India with Mary-Mitchell Campbell and her wonderful organization ASTEP (Artists Striving to End Poverty). They worked with orphans and performed for the villagers.
John sang for us the year before after Mark McVey had to cancel at the last minute. Even though he was starring in the demanding role of Max Bialystock in “The Producers” eight times a week, John learned the song, “Ordinary Miracles,” and sang it on his one night off for Broadway Blessing’s 10th anniversary celebration.
And then there’s Norm, who came up to the South Bronx several years ago to talk to children I was working with in an after-school program. His schedule changed after he had agreed to be there and he ended up needing to be in downtown Manhattan around the same time. I would certainly have understood if he hadn’t come, but he did. Even though he knew he could only make the very end of the gathering, he took car service all the way up there and was wonderful with the children -- and the staff, who were in love with him for his hunky role on “All My Children.” These three giving and talented actors deserve better. Actually most actors deserve better.
As they were all on stage for the final applause, I said quietly to them from my seat, “Don’t worry. You’ll get better shows.”
They sure couldn’t do much worse.