Sunday, April 25, 2010

Fish tales at Wheelock

Margaret Ann Brady and Andrea Ross cavort amid Stacey Stephens's terrific costumes in The Little Mermaid.

The Wheelock Family Theatre's new production of The Little Mermaid gets so much right that I felt a little guilty about not liking it more. Director/designer James P. Byrne's solutions to the problems of evoking swirling schools of fish and scuttling squads of crabs, not to mention the shimmering, sinuous tails of the titular heroine and her friends, were always delightful, and the armies of kids impersonating these undersea denizens always charmed. Indeed, the show's at its strongest in the imaginative extravaganzas between its scenes, when iridescent fish swim about the auditorium, their tails twirling like kites as they poke about audience members as if they were so many stands of coral.

And you couldn't fault the production's adult cast, either: Andrea Ross made an appealing "Pearl" (not "Ariel," more on that later), and Margaret Ann Brady chewed the reefery just as she should as the Sea Witch. There were also hilarious pratfalls from Ricardo Engermann, and generally the performances were lightly comic and gently graceful.

The trouble is that the script, by Linda Daugherty, isn't quite seaworthy. Parents should note that this is not the popular Disney musical - despite a single song and a variety of music cues - but rather an attempt to meld its family-friendly revisionism with some of the dark drama of the Hans Christian Andersen original. Like the Brothers Grimm, Andersen favored tales that are grim indeed by modern standards, and often end with suffering (and explicit moralizing). Indeed, in her first incarnation, the Little Mermaid not only didn't get the Prince, but died for her efforts and dissolved into sea-foam. This turned out to be a bit much even for Andersen; he later revised the story to allow her some Little-Match-Girl-like redemption in the afterlife.

Adapter Daugherty clearly wants to temper the feel-good, you-can-have-it-all vibe of the Disney version with the sense of sacrifice (if not the religiosity) of the original. Which is certainly a laudable goal. The trouble is that beat by stumbling beat, Daugherty can't really pull it off, and she basically tries to keep the Disney tone (and pump up a gentle environmentalism) while smuggling in some of Andersen's old-school sexual vengeance without ever really harming - or even touching - "Pearl." It doesn't quite work, but the kids probably won't notice that. You may notice, however, that their focus tends to drift in between the appearances of the scary eels and the rainbow fish.

Still, there are those scary eels and those rainbow fish. And of course the good folks at Wheelock are also keeping a large number of local actors working. And is The Little Mermaid better than another trip to the multiplex? Yes, it is. You could do worse on a rainy day than taking a dip in this gentle, well-intentioned effort.