Theater Review: ‘The Little Mermaid’: Plenty of Songs on an Aquatic Stage


CHICAGO—When there’s no violent storm, no real shipwreck, and no live seagulls, it’s a bit of a stretch to convey the kind of sea-world setting of the 1989 Walt Disney movie “The Little Mermaid.” But Music Theater Works comes through with a terrific job of conveying a seashore and the kind of underwater world that one experiences in the animated film. More importantly, a show like “The Little Mermaid” is a delight that offers positive and inspirational affirmation.

With the artistic touch of talented co-directors Joshua Castille and Stacey Flaster on the show’s stagecraft, and with imaginative designers and charming performers, it doesn’t take long before we believe we’re in an aquatic landscape as we watch Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale come to life on stage.

From Story to Movie to Musical

Indeed, there are plenty of water-logged items hanging from the theater’s rafters, (the set designed by Shane Cinal and Ellen Marcus, with shimmering lighting by Andrew Meyers), and a hint of salt in the air to suggest that we are no longer in a city environment.
Cast members in a scene from musical "The Little Mermaid." (Brett Beiner)
Cast members in a scene from musical "The Little Mermaid." (Brett Beiner)

With a book by Doug Wright, this theatrical revival is an enchanting delight for kids and their families.  The tale revolves around a teenage mermaid princess, Ariel, who is intrigued by the humanity’s world of and wants to explore the land above the sea.

Her father, Triton, King of the Sea, is very much against it, but Ariel, stubborn as many teens are, goes on land and falls in love with Eric, a human prince. She has a problem though, because she can’t walk with a mermaid’s tail.  Determined, she makes a Faustian bargain with a sea witch, Ursula, to exchange her tail for feet. It’s a dangerous deal because Ariel has to kiss Eric within three days, and if she fails, will lose her voice and freedom.

Performers on a Sea Stage

While it’s important to convey an oceanic atmosphere, the most captivating aspect about this show are the performers, some of whom have to portray undulating shell creatures without vertebrae.  On the side of evil there’s the horrible sea witch, Ursula, portrayed with great relish by Caroline Lyell, assisted by Gus Franchere as Flotsam, and Anakin White as Jetsam.

On the side of good there is golden-voiced Joselle Reyes as Ariel and her friends Scuttle, portrayed by Clayton Cross; Sebastian played by Wesley Anthony Clerge; Flounder, in a nice turn by Eloise Mulliken; and Ariel’s love interest, Prince Eric, played by a compelling and velvety-voiced Nathan Karnik.

Joselle Reyes as Ariel and Nathan Karnik as Prince Eric in a scene from the musical "The Little Mermaid." (Brett beiner)
Joselle Reyes as Ariel and Nathan Karnik as Prince Eric in a scene from the musical "The Little Mermaid." (Brett beiner)

Since this “Mermaid” is a musical, there are plenty of engaging songs composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glen Slater, such as “Part of Your World,” “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” “Under The Sea,” and “Kiss The Girls.” These are led by music director Celia Villacres and are energized by Flaster and Matthew Weidenbener’s choreography.

A highlight of the show is the whimsical, colorful costume designs by Rachel M. Sypniewski. It’s not easy to come up with inventive dress for actors who have to look and be able to move in a slinky, rubbery fashion to convey the appearance of fish-like creatures. This is why some of Sypniewski’s designs are ingenious.

For the Young and Not So

The kids at the show I watched had the look of wondrous enjoyment on their faces as the magic of the spectacle unfolded. Indeed, the adult family members that accompanied the kids looked to be having a good time themselves.  But while “The Little Mermaid” is fun entertainment, it also features important messages for youngsters.

For instance, the heroine of the story, Ariel, is  courageous. She knows what she wants and is willing to sacrifice for love and freedom. The fantasy demonstrates that every sacrifice has a risk with its own reward.

It also teaches that, even though someone may have achieved a heroic feat such as that of the Mermaid’s saving the prince, they may not be compensated for it. It’s an encouragement to do what one believes is right even though one may not always receive a reward for the effort.

But the show isn’t just for kids.  Adults, who also are inundated with poor entertainment choices, will also appreciate this production. Indeed, this show has a way of bringing out the child in everyone.

Promotional ad for musical "The Little Mermaid." (musical Theater Works)
Promotional ad for musical "The Little Mermaid." (musical Theater Works)
‘The Little Mermaid’ Music Theater Works North Shore Center for the Performing Arts 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, Ill. Tickets: 847-673-6300 or Runs: 2 hours, 35 minutes Closes: June 26, 2022
As an arts writer and movie/theater/opera critic, Betty Mohr has been published in the Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Australian, The Dramatist, the SouthtownStar, the Post Tribune, The Herald News, The Globe and Mail in Toronto, and other publications.