by Mercedes Hesselroth
In 2013, NBC made a splash in event television by airing The Sound of Music Live!, attracting over 18 million viewers to a live telecast of the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical. Ever since, other productions and networks have tried to whip up a magic combination of nostalgia, stunt casting, holiday viewership, and integrated marketing to return these televised musicals to the juggernauts they were in the 1950s.
Last night’s The Little Mermaid Live! was the first such attempt from ABC, who only dipped their toes in the water by mixing live performances with footage of the classic 1989 film instead of committing to a fully live format. Ostensibly aired as a celebration of The Little Mermaid’s 30th anniversary, this production fell remarkably short as it understood neither animation nor musical theatre.
The hand-drawn animation of classic Disney films holds a certain charm unreplicable in other mediums. In the vast worlds of animation, anything seems possible, so audiences have a higher capacity to suspend their disbelief. In theatre, this surreality is traded for the spectacle of live performance. It is up to the audience to take the stage elements before them and collectively imagine them into being, like the masks and puppetry representing animals in Julie Taymor’s The Lion King or the lighting contraption that serves as the titular comet in Rachel Chavkin’s Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.
By segmenting these two worlds instead of blending them together or letting each stand on its own, The Little Mermaid Live! simultaneously lost the magic of the original animation and shortchanged the human connection of its live performances.
Things, at first, got off swimmingly when Jodi Benson (the original voice of Ariel) introduced the telecast and an impressive ensemble delivered a spirited rendition of “Fathoms Below.” The curtains gave way to an enormous ship deck, flying aerial artists, a dreamy Prince Eric (Graham Phillips), and even a real dog to play Max (Bagel). It wasn’t until the disjointed movie clips overtook the telecast that things began to go underwater. Though Moana voice actress Auli’i Cravalho was supposedly the lead of the production, she didn’t even appear as Ariel until we had already gotten acclimated to Benson’s voice and the animated character design.
Since none of the animated characters looked or sounded quite like their live counterparts, the sudden cuts between them could be jarring. It’s difficult to stomach the sight of a fabric, unblinking Flounder after having just seen the emotive, bright-colored fish swirl around in the water. On top of that, audiences may have had trouble placing the characters and their motivations when they showed up in so many disparate forms. While Cravalho and Phillips pleasantly portrayed innocent teens falling in love, their reduced screen time hindered the ability of the performers to build effective emotional arcs. After the opening number, Phillips didn’t return to the stage for a full hour, and the couple’s most significant relationship developments were isolated to the film.
The highlight of the unsteady presentation was undoubtedly Queen Latifah, who had delicious fun as the villain Ursula and brought an original fabulosity to the role, making the case that she should have played the sea witch full-time. In comparison, other cast members seemed less than committed to their parts. Shaggy wore only a red jacket and pants to distinguish he was Sebastian, and gave the most concert-like performance, free from characterization. Even worse, at the end of his only number as Chef Louis, John Stamos openly announced he should have been cast as “Prince Albert” instead – confusing Prince Eric’s name and mistakenly thinking the show had already cut to commercial break.
What was most discouraging about watching The Little Mermaid Live! was it’s utter purposelessness – it’s not an homage to the 1989 film if you insert numbers from the Broadway version, and it’s not cultivating interest in theatre if you continuously cut away from the live sequences. Perhaps it’s no mistake Disney aired this special on Election Tuesday as people needed something light and mindless to switch to while waiting for voting results. But if you missed the telecast and have two hours of nautical apathy sitting in your DVR, you’re better off watching the original or taking the family for a night out supporting local theatre.