Arts & Theater

A changed ‘Mermaid’ swims into Sacramento

Melvin Abston as Sebastian and Alison Woods as Ariel perform with the cast of “The Little Mermaid.”
Melvin Abston as Sebastian and Alison Woods as Ariel perform with the cast of “The Little Mermaid.” Theatre Under the Stars

Odds are you haven’t seen the new version of “Disney’s Little Mermaid,” which comes to Sacramento next week.

The Broadway Sacramento presentation at the Community Center Theater will have some similarities to the production audiences saw at Music Circus in 2012, but some significant differences as well. California Musical Theatre and Music Circus artistic director Glenn Casale, who directed the Music Circus production, has continued to revise the musical with the blessing of Disney, part of an ongoing collaboration with the company that gives local audiences unique looks at the evolving musical.

Casale’s relationship with Disney began more than a decade ago. “The first time I started working with them was when I did ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in the round, up at Northshore (a Massachusetts theatre),” he said from his home in Los Angeles during a casting-session break for the upcoming Music Circus season. “They were looking for somebody to redo ‘Beauty’ and reimagine it – not do what they did on Broadway, but rethink it.”

Casale downsized the production for smaller venues, making the storytelling more intimate, less set dependent. The Disney executives liked what he did with the piece and decided that’s how they wanted their European touring productions to look. They hired him to direct several across-the-Atlantic versions, and Casale celebrated the 10th anniversary of the still-touring “Beauty and the Beast” last month in Amsterdam.

“It was so nice because they really trusted me ... and that’s what led us to ‘Little Mermaid,’ ” Casale said.

This new, revised production of “Mermaid” isn’t a national-touring production but more of a limited-traveling production with new scenery and costumes under the banner of McCoy Rigby Entertainment and Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars.

The creation of American musicals has been one of the most collaborative of the commercial artistic enterprises. Significant changes made to legendary productions during rehearsals and out-of-town tryouts are common. Because of the number of artists and elements involved – the story, the songs, the special effects – putting a musical together has numerous complications. When a corporate entity such as Disney also has a vested interest in the project’s success, the stakes are even higher.

The 1989 animated film “The Little Mermaid” has grossed more than $200 million worldwide. Disney had hoped it would become a live-production franchise following in the steps of the venerable “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.” Things have not yet worked out that way. The production has not particularly been a hit with audiences or critics. After several years in development, the production opened on Broadway on Jan. 10, 2008, and closed on Aug. 30, 2009, after 685 performances and 50 previews.

Its creative team included a book by playwright Doug Wright, music by Alan Menken, and lyrics by Glenn Slater and Howard Ashman. The renowned opera director Francesca Zambello staged the production.

Casale saw that original Broadway production and thought it had some promise but also needed work. “I thought there was something special there,” he said. “It’s product that we all need in the theater – it’s family entertainment, something that could be with us for generations like ‘Annie’ like ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ 

Casale said the challenge has been making the musical palatable for children and adults so both can take something from the experience. Previously, he modified the “Mermaid” book, added a new song and created new staging for a Dutch production, and that was seen at the Music Circus in 2012.

Since the 2012 production, he has continued making the story more about the heroine, Ariel, discovering herself rather than looking for a prince, which was the narrative in the movie. “I started working on the relationship between Ariel and her father – a more adult Ariel wanting to find out who she is,” he said. “She’s different than her sisters.”

He also wanted more character development for Ariel’s nemesis, Ursula. “What makes her so mean?” he asked.

Casale’s changes are now part of the official version licensed by Disney Theatricals for regional and professional productions.

Both Casale and Disney felt there was still work to be done after the 2012 Music Circus production so they reconvened members of the creative team in New York. “They gave us the ‘Lion King’ stage because they have flying apparatus, so it took about a week,” Casale said. “We did a workshop with puppets and different songs.

“You’re going to see quite a few changes from when we did it in Sacramento – both in tone and also in how we tell the story a little bit.”

Marcus Crowder: 916-321-1120, @marcuscrowder

The Little Mermaid

Tickets range from $24 to $92. Availability is extremely limited.

When: Opens Feb. 2; 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. matinees Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday; through Feb. 7

Where: Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento

Information: (916) 557-1999; www.californiamusicaltheatre.com

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