2017-03-16 / On the Town

‘Superb’ cast make stage version of Disneyfilm a splash hit in Simi

PLAY REVIEW /// ‘The Little Mermaid’
By Cary Ginell

UNDER THE SEA—Isabella Mancusco portrays Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” now playing at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. 
Courtesy of Austin Brown Photography UNDER THE SEA—Isabella Mancusco portrays Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” now playing at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center. Courtesy of Austin Brown Photography “The Little Mermaid,” Disney’s stage version of the classic animated film, tells the now-familiar story of Ariel, a mermaid princess who finds love in “the world above,” but not before risking her soul and her voice in the process. Actors’ Repertory Theatre of Simi is staging the show through April 2 and its production is resplendent, highlighted by a superb cast, opulent costumes and splendid choreography.

The story bears similarities to other musicals, including “West Side Story” (forbidden love), “Damn Yankees” (risking one’s soul for a wish) and “Cinderella” (a handsome prince seeks out an elusive maiden), but the singular charm in “Mermaid” comes from its rich score, with Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s original songs augmented by additional numbers from Menken and Glenn Slater. (ARTS uses Glenn Casales’ reimagined version of the 2008 Broadway production. This version, launched in 2012, omits or replaces some songs and otherwise tightens up the story.)

Director David Daniels knows this territory well. He’s a producer for Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment and is marking his 10th season helming shows for ARTS. He has a marvelous casting sense and has populated this production with a near-perfect lineup of actors and singers.

First and foremost is the delightful Isabella Mancuso, who carries the show as Ariel. With a voice that falls perfectly within the pantheon of Disney heroines, Mancuso sings easily and well as the wide-eyed innocent looking for love.

Ariel is miserable because her father, the sea king Triton, has so many behavioral hang-ups. In addition to being an overprotective father, he is reeling from his rivalry with his evil sister Ursula, who he banished for practicing black arts, and also harbors prejudice toward land-based humans. Triton is played by the magnificent Donovan Wright, whose stentorian presence and rich, bass voice are keys to the success of this production.

Wright’s booming vocals are balanced by the soaring tenor of Christian Taylor, who plays Ariel’s love interest, Prince Eric. When Taylor, Mancuso and Wright are joined by baritone Ra’Shawn Durell, who plays Sebastian, the feisty Caribbean crab, the Act II quartet, “If Only,” becomes the vocal highlight of the show.

Durell is a charismatic Sebastian, decked out from head to claw in red (one of dozens of sumptuous, gaudy costumes designed by Lori Lee Gordon), and leads the cast in the calypso-flavored production number “Under the Sea,” a jubilant underwater carnival that spotlights the imaginative choreography of Becky Castells.

Judi Domroy’s entrance as the evil Ursula, sporting a Phyllis Diller fright wig (designed by Luis Ramirez) and Gordon’s sprawling tentacle ball gown, was received with a standing ovation by the audience, probably the only time a villain has gotten such a response. Her showcase number, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” is Bette Midler personified and an absolute triumph.

Andrew Metzger, a real-life cartoon character, plays the part of the un-“flappable” seagull, Scuttle. Metzger prowls the audience before the show, bargaining for random objects in purses and handbags. Metzger’s improvisatory abilities are difficult to contain, and Daniels has smartly allowed him a quota of ad libs per performance (a brilliant one referenced “Hamilton”). Metzger’s Act II opener, “Positoovity,” one of the newer songs, is a special delight.

Kevin Ellis acts with panache as the flamboyant Chef Louis, who sings “Les Poissons,” a relative to “Be Our Guest.” Ursula’s henchmen, the eels Flotsam and Jetsam, are played with sinewy skill by Trae Adair and Hamid Janguard. Camille Schwarz plays Ariel’s loyal companion, Flounder.

Matt Park leads the tightly proficient ten-piece orchestra.

“The Little Mermaid” is definitely “see-worthy” entertainment. It runs through April 2 at the Simi Valley Cultural Arts Center, 3050 Los Angeles Ave., Simi Valley. For tickets, call (805) 583-7900 or visit www.simi-arts.org

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