Wheelock Family Theatre’s lavish production of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” isn’t the Disney song-and-dance version that catapulted animated mermaid Ariel to international stardom. The Boston theater production of the original Andersen fairy tale, which he wrote in the mid-1800s, has been rewritten by Linda Daugherty, and is cleverly modernized and adapted for today’s audiences, exploding with its own star power, handsome sets, stunning costumes. The delightful, fanciful story, unlike Andersen’s, ends jubilantly.
Wheelock is among the most audience-friendly theaters anywhere, with its dual on-stage monitors projecting all dialogue. Also, the actors are continually within reach of the audience, as performers prance, swish, and swagger, and in this case, swim, along the side, main aisles, and on stage, mesmerizing little ones.
Most people know the story of mermaid Pearl, Neptune’s curious daughter, who couldn’t wait for her 18th birthday and wanders close to the surface, to the sun’s radiating warmth on the water, revealing an unknown world and strange creatures - humans- beyond her watery realm. Besides being lovely like her older sisters, Luna, Coral and Anemone, Pearl is blessed with a special gift - a lilting, melodic voice. When she encounters drowning, handsome human Prince Stefan, Pearl swims him to safety, to shore, where they meet beautiful princess Marianna, (to whom the unaware prince is betrothed, and incorrectly credits with saving his life). Pearl feels impelled to return the prince to his homeland and falls in love with him. She makes a pact with the evil, verboten Sea Witch in exchange for becoming human to relinquish her voice and her life if the prince doesn’t fall in love with her. A tumultuous sea battle and revealed shared secret between the Sea Witch and Pearl’s powerful grandmother, Great Mother, save Pearl’s voice, romance, and her life, creating a happy, fairytale ending.
Wheelock Family Theatre, aptly led by director-set designer James P. Byrne in this production, has created a spectacular vision of sight, sound and movement that would have challenged Hans Christian Andersen’s vivid imagination and surpassed his dreams. A stunning, multi-level aquatic set, awash in shades of blues and aqua, undulates through calm and stormy seas. Ubiquitous Stacey Stephens, whose costume designs are enhancing several Boston and area stages simultaneously, has created an underwater kingdom of graceful mermaids, shocking electric eels, lobsters, crabs, jellyfish; a murky, kelpy, Sea Witch; commanding, kindly king of the sea; and ethereal, gracious Queen Mother. The set teems with multi-colored, swimming fish, creatures, and humans.
Franklin teen-ager Andrea Ross, who has graced many stages professionally, is enchanting as Pearl. Others in this star-studded cast include opera singer Johnny Lee Davenport, who doesn’t sing as the Sea King; Margaret Ann Brady, who is deliciously evil as the Sea Witch, thwarted by her foil, Great Mother, graciously portrayed by Jane Staab, (she penned the show’s sole song). Kami Rushell Smith, who recently starred in several Boston productions, is charming as Marianna; and David Kaim is fine as Prince Stefan. The entire cast adds luster, as does lighting designer Karen Perlow’s eye-popping swirling strobes and J. Hagenbuckle’s sound effects.