Theatre Reviews

The Little Mermaid

Music by Alan MenkenMERMAID_980x274_2 copy

Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater

Book by Doug Wright

Directed by Rachel Rockwell

Produced by Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Disney Fun Contains Design to Dazzle Children

As part of Chicago Shakespeare’s mission of increasing the public’s comfort in theatre, each summer, they perform a short musical that appeals to children through its familiarity and fantastical designs. This year’s show is Disney’s The Little Mermaid, a 2007 adaptation of the 1989 movie which is credited with reviving Disney’s animated musicals. Chicago Shakespeare’s production is helmed by Rachel Rockwell, a director well-known for her ability to work with and entertain children, as she did recently in her magnificent production of Billy Elliot at Drury Lane. While I doubt this show will prove as interesting to parents as their kids, it is short, cute, and contains the kind of stagecraft that should keep all audiences entertained through its short duration.

Under the Sea. All photos by Liz Lauren,
Under the Sea. All photos by Liz Lauren,

Rachel Eskenazi-Gold plays Ariel, the mermaid princess who already longed to explore land before falling in love with the handsome Prince Eric (Brandon Springman, being succeeded by Will Skrip on August 12). She has enough charisma and vocal prowess to sing “Part of Your World” while being hoisted high above the stage and flown across its back portion, in one of many physically challenging scenes of this high-energy production. Simplification and elision of the plot reduced the other characters’ roles, but Rebecca Finnegan is still a nasty old witch as Ursula, and sings “Poor Unfortunate Souls” with melodramatic, villainous glee. Matt Crowle, as the clownish seagull Scuttle, leads Ariel and a small ensemble in a tap number original to the musical that raises the audience’s spirits for the second part of the story, and Joseph Anthony Byrd, as the pompous crab-kapellmeister Sebastian, dances and scuttles about in a dazzling rendition of “Under the Sea,” which includes several iridescent costume pieces by Theresa Ham and puppets by Cehlsea M. Warren used only for that song.

Rebecca Finnegan, Adam Fane, Sean Blake, and Rachel Eskenazi-Gold

Rachel Rockwell often does her own choreography, and in this case, created serviceable pop-style routines for Ariel’s sisters. The slapstick movements aren’t always as sharp, and maybe it’s not meant to be. Scott Davis’s scenic design, always minimal on Chicago Shakespeare’s thrust stage, has enough coral and man-o-wars to fire the imagination, and Shawn Sagady’s projections and Yael Lubetzky’s lights fill up the underwater world. A small orchestra conducted by Valerie Maze keeps Alan Menken’s score lively over seventy-five minutes that somehow are still a little light on plot. Doug Wright’s book made Ariel more active in the climax than she was in the movie, but I doubt most six-year-olds will grasp the metaphorical meaning of “don’t give up your voice,” and the script unnecessarily makes a point about Ursula’s complicity in the death of Ariel’s mother that is meant to exonerate humans of cruelty towards sea-life, but only highlights the incoherence of its position. Though I doubt six-year-olds will care about that, either. Chicago Shakespeare’s production the The Little Mermaid is exactly what children’s theatre should be: a beautifully designed, charismatically acted spectacle that introduces them to the possibilities of co-operating with live actors to invent a shared world. Their parents will be glad to have taken them.


Jacob Davis
[email protected]
Reviewed July 10, 2015

For more information, see The Little Mermaid’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on Navy Pier. Recommended for ages 5 and up. Plays through August 16. Tickets are $22-34 with discounts available for groups of 10 or more. To order, call 312-595-5600 or visit Running time is seventy-five minutes with no intermission.