by Terrance Mc Arthur
Strap on your swim fins and grab your aqualung, people. Let’s go “Under the Sea” to see Disney’s The Little Mermaid at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theatre until May 15.
How can a beloved animated film be transformed into flesh-and-blood actors? How can performers on land float and glide like creatures of the sea? It’s easy, if you have the ever-inventive Dan Pessano as a director (He doesn’t even need to be on the stage to make me laugh), the indefatigable Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed designing costumes (those “heelies” give a grace and fluidity to movements in the water world), David Pierce creating sets that evoke the sea (and protect the audience from runaway roller-feet), and Don Thompson developing video effects and projections that make you feel like you fell into one of those 3-D aquarium screensavers advertised on the Internet (there are even bubbles surrounding characters rising to the surface).
If you have children and a DVD player, you know the story. Young mermaid Ariel (Emily Pessano), daughter of King Triton (Greg Ruud), is obsessed with the surface of the sea and the people who live above it. She rescues Prince Eric (William Bishop) from a shipwreck, and he falls in love with her voice, not knowing she’s of the merfolk. To get her prince, Ariel buys legs from Ursula, the Sea Witch (Brianne Janae Vogt) at the price of her voice. How will she win the prince when she can’t talk or sing? Since this is the Disney version, everything ends up all right (The original Hans Christian Andersen tale didn’t have a child-affirming ending, which is why the show isn’t called H. C Andersen’s The Little Mermaid).
Emily is lithe, limber, and lovely, bringing all of Ariel’s bubbly enthusiasm to the role. She has starred in Our Town, Shrek, Spamalot, Thoroughly Modern Millie, and more…. Is there anything she can’t play? Her presence inspires love, expresses confidence, and exudes talent. She’s wistful on “The World Above,” longing on “Part of Your World,” and ebullient on “Beyond My Wildest Dreams.”
Bishop is stalwart and earnest as the non-swimming prince who gets several of the near-dozen new songs written for the stage version by composer Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, who added words, since the late Howard Ashman was no longer available. Ruud is noble, stately, and compassionate as the mer-king, trying to understand a daughter who doesn’t want to swim with the rest of the school. Shawn Williams is tall and shy as Flounder, Ariel’s friend, who has been transformed in the stage script from a pre-adolescent tag-along to a smitten admirer who can’t express his true feelings to the object of his affection—but don’t feel too sorry for him, because he does all right in the end.
Brianne Janae Vogt flexes her tentacles as Ursula, the Sea Witch, menacing without being threatening, sort of like a caricature of a bad mother-in-law. Her personal minions, the electric-mohawked eels Flotsam and Jetsam, are impossibly thin Alex Figueroa and Tim Smith, with makeup that glows in the dark (thanks to Emily’s design, and she did wonders with hair, too).
There are three big winners in the kid-pleasing department. Camille Gaston struts and flutters as the malaprop-spouting seagull, Scuttle. Juan Danner is pouty and quilted as Sebastian the Crab, gleefully lending a calypso-reggae-ska vibe to “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.” Ethel Birrell whoops it up as a cartoonish French chef with a passion for fish…on the plate.
It’s fun family fare, and you’ll be glad you got your feet wet. Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theatre is at 1226 N. Wishon Avenue in Fresno. Call (559) 266-9494 or go to gcplayers.com for tickets.
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