"Too many notes!"
When Emperor Joseph says that to Mozart in the movie Amadeus, it is understood to be a vapid criticism of the work of a genius. As the emperor elucidates further, "There are, in fact, only so many notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening."
At the risk of being found vapid, I must conclude that, upon viewing The Little Mermaid at Beck Center, there are too many songs in this often-waterlogged adaptation of the eponymous animated flick. Despite being well sung by the Beck cast, the music by Alan Menken (performed with polish by musical director Larry Goodpaster and his orchestra) along with lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, often feel perfunctory and workmanlike. That problem is magnified at times due to many lyrics being lost because of inadequate amplification or careless diction.
Those offenses to the ear are a shame because the show is quite pleasing to the eye. This is due in large part to the lighting by Jeff Herrmann and some wonderful effects created by projection designer Adam Zeek. Indeed, from the moment you walk into the theater, the watery projections wallpapering the set make you feel like you're wading into the welcoming warmth of a Caribbean beach.
From that point, the book by Doug Wright introduces us to lovers from two different worlds. Ariel is the beauteous daughter of papa Triton (Darryl Lewis), who lives in his undersea kingdom. Meanwhile, Prince Eric is on board a ship and is entranced by a siren voice (guess whose?) and declares it his mission to follow it to the end of the earth.
While mermaid Ariel's six mer-sisters are singing homage to daddy, Ariel is picking up ocean trash and worshipping the artifacts of the human world. Lucky for her, there's plenty of that garbage floating around, and she's given a lesson in collecting it from a malaprop-prone seagull named Scuttle (Zachary Vederman, whose promising comic characterization could benefit from more risk-taking).
Anyhow, the prince is thrown overboard in a storm and Ariel saves him without his knowledge. But Ariel is fixated on hooking up with the boy (hey, it's Disney pre-Moana), and the remainder of the show dissects this not-so-torrid romance in often excruciating detail. As Ariel, Kathleen Rooney sings the frequently banal songs quite beautifully, and she displays the right amount of spunk and innocence. But her swoony adoration of the ramrod stiff prince (played with ramrod stiffness by the gifted singer Shane Patrick O'Neill) never ignites.
Usually, Disney shows like this can be saved by a really delectable villain, one who makes your skin (or scales) crawl. But evil Ursula, the octopus who is Triton's sister, doesn't have enough menacing moments to fill this bill. Natalie Blalock sings up a storm as Ursula, but her lyrics don't have the mean snap that can send shivers. Instead, she sings about her ability to help mermaids such as Ariel live their dreams. It's all a scam of course, but Ursula's real mean streak is kept hidden far too long, depriving the show of a much-needed engine.
Once Ariel makes a deal to become a human for a while, thanks to Ursula, the transition never quite resonates since costume designer Leon Dobkowski and Spence decided to eschew mermaid tails and other secondary fish characteristics. That's understandable from a mobility standpoint (hard to dance in a fish tail), but the sea creatures in this production never seem sufficiently aquatic.
In the featured role of Sebastian, the bodyguard crab assigned to keep watch over Ariel, Wesley Allen sings well and has the strut and posture of this crustacean down pat. And his song, "Under the Sea," lifts the show with its calypso beat. But in the first act, Allen rushed his exit lines so that they came out garbled, a diction problem shared at times by other cast members.
Director Scott Spence has an admirable track record for mounting big productions such as Mermaid, and he paces the show well. But the predictable fish-centric gag lines (one mer-person laments, "Teenagers: Give them an inch and they'll swim all over you!") and the overly complex plotting make it all feel a bit stale.
And there are some scenes that just don't seem to fit at all, such as the cooking scene when the chef (Robert Pierce) tries to fry up Sebastian along with a collection of other fish. In an attempt at wild slapstick, the chase that ensues involving multiple chefs feels entirely too controlled and choreographed. By this time in the run (the show opened Dec. 2), a scene like this should have the giddy energy of a free-for-all, not a tentative rehearsal.
Fortunately, in the second act Zeek's projections come to the rescue, including an awesome-looking panorama of the prince's balcony-bedecked crib, and an enveloping appearance of Ursula's tentacles wiggling menacingly over the entire set. If the first part of the show had captured some of that stage magic, this show would succeed, um, swimmingly.