Theater / Film

Review: Giancarlo Rodaz and Area Stage immerse audiences in the world of ‘The Little Mermaid’

Written By Christine Dolen
August 14, 2023 at 2:11 PM

Josslyn Shaw’s Ariel falls for Henry Thrasher’s Prince Eric in Area Stage Company’s “The Little Mermaid” at the Arsht Center through Aug. 27. (Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

Among the many takeaways from Area Stage Company’s enchanting immersive production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” are these two points:  You can tell a familiar story in wonderful new ways, and you don’t need a drop of real water to create an undersea world.

Playing at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater through Aug. 27 – and the brevity of that run is truly a shame – the production devised by newly named artistic director Giancarlo Rodaz and executed with help from his many collaborators is every bit as enthralling as the Carbonell Award-winning “Beauty and the Beast” the company presented a year ago.

As with that earlier show, just walking into the transformed space is a jaw-dropping experience.

Aaron Hagos as Sebastian chats with theatergoers at Area Stage Company’s “The Little Mermaid” at the Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

Frank Oliva, who got his start with Area Stage and is now designing for theaters all over the country (Broadway included), has outdone himself. A central grotto, a ship for the show’s restless prince, a crow’s nest, a special spot for the delicious villain of the piece are among Oliva’s handiwork.

An upside-down rowboat holds some of Joe Naftal’s place-shifting lighting instruments, which bathe undersea scenes in blues and greens, then turn sunny or stormy for events in the human world.

Actors in dozens of lavish costumes by Maria Banda-Rodaz and Sofia Ortega dot the space, singing, playing instruments, handing out map-like programs and showing the all-age theatergoers to seats and benches that dot the room.

Then the storytelling, familiar yet fresh, begins.

Katie Duerr and Annette Rodriguez (hidden) operate the seagull puppet Scuttle in Area Stage’s “The Little Mermaid” at the Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

Based on the smash hit 1989 animated Disney movie (which was inspired by a far darker Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale), this 2007 Broadway version of “The Little Mermaid” has a score by Oscar and Tony Award winner Alan Menken, lyrics by Oscar winner Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, and a book by Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright.

It’s a star-crossed tale of a red-haired mermaid named Ariel (Josslyn Shaw), daughter of the stern King Triton (Frank Montoto), and a dashing seafaring prince named Eric (Henry Thrasher), who has no interest in ascending to his father’s throne.

The two meet when she saves him after he’s tossed overboard during a storm. Though the prospect of a life together seems very dim indeed, Ariel’s scheming sorceress aunt Ursula (Jonathan Chisolm) coaxes her into signing a clause-filled contract almost as long as one of the ropes surrounding the set.  Ariel trades her beautiful voice for a set of legs, but unless she can get Prince Eric to kiss her within three days, it’s back to the depths to live out her life as Ursula’s slave.

That’s the plot in a nutshell. Or maybe a conch shell. “The Little Mermaid” follows the classic Disney formula – imperiled beauty and a prince fall for each other, true love’s path is blocked by a villain, then the enemy is vanquished in time for a wedding – but the specifics of each story are what captivate audiences for generations.

Josslyn Shaw’s Ariel and Henry Thrasher’s Prince Eric circle the set as Aaron Hagos’s Sebastian urges him to “Kiss the Girl.” (Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

Rodaz utilizes a combination of young and more seasoned talent, veterans of Area Stage’s conservatory program, and several frequent collaborators in his immersive take on “The Little Mermaid.”  The production’s style is more reminiscent of the director’s deservedly lauded 2021 take on “Annie,” a show that kicked the buzz about Rodaz’s talent into high gear.

The emphasis this time is largely on playful fun –well, maybe not so much with Chisolm’s stunning, conniving Ursula. But as an audience member, you never know when a cast member will leap onto your table to sing.

Or if you’re in the priciest VIP seats, the ones surrounding the grotto, you’ll get an up-close view of the dancers’ thundering feet as they perform choreographer Irma Becker’s work, an exuberant tap number to “Positoovity”[cq].

You’ll hear the crab court composer Sebastian (Aaron Hagos) crooning a dreamy “Kiss the Girl” while Ariel and Prince Eric circle the grotto in a “boat” pushed by their castmates. Will the prince finally go for it and plant true love’s kiss on the adoring Ariel?  Whether or not you know the answer, the moment is full of tender hope.

Menken’s score for the animated “Little Mermaid” won the Oscar, and under the music direction of Michael Day and Rick Kaydas, the large cast impressively delivers the stage version of these oh-so-familiar songs – not a simple task when actors are placed in multiple spots within the space.  Kudos to sound designer Eric Green, who also invisibly whips up a storm and supplies the whoosh of ocean waves, and to Day, who plays piano and leads the small hidden orchestra.

Jonathan Chisolm’s fabulous Ursula cooks up evil plots under the sea in Area Stage Company’s “The Little Mermaid.” (Photo courtesy of Ariany Cespedes)

Stars Shaw and Thrasher check all the boxes for Disney musical leads.  They’re attractive young talents with fine voices and enthusiasm to burn.  Shaw artfully conveys Ariel’s adventurous longing as she sings “Part of Your World” and joins in the wistful quartet “If Only” with Prince Eric, Sebastian and King Triton. Though Thrasher’s voice gets a tad thin at the top of his register, he sings “Her Voice” with passion and embodies the conflicting emotions of the handsome prince.

A cleverly conceived villain played by the right actor can walk away with many a musical (or in this case, swim away with it), and Chisolm (who uses the pronouns they/them) does exactly that with Ursula.  Sporting a shock of white hair and a gorgeous purple gown, Chisolm demonstrates that they’ll take no prisoners (Ariel excepted) as they belt “I Want the Good Times Back” with their chortling henchmen Flotsam (Tico Chiriboga) and Jetsam (Luke Surretsky).  Chisholm is sensational.

Likewise, Montoto’s King Triton is a commanding presence with a powerful voice.  The actor is a veteran of many an Area Stage production and is among the company’s strongest performing assets.  When Ursula and King Triton face off near the end of the show, the explosive confrontation is enough to whip up a tsunami.

Hagos exudes frustration, playfulness and compassion as Sebastian, and though his Jamaican accent could be a bit stronger, he makes the Oscar-winning “Under the Sea” the special experience it should be.

Frank Montoto is a stern King Triton in Area Stage Company’s production of “The Little Mermaid” at the Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Giancarlo Rodaz)

Hallie Walker as Ariel’s sidekick Flounder, John Luis as Prince Eric’s servant and friend Grimsby, Annette Rodriguez and Katie Duerr operating the opinionated seagull puppet Scuttle (designed by Erik Sanko), Nelson Rodriguez as the pilot of the prince’s ship and other performers who take on multiple roles (Brette Raia Curah, Karina Fernandez, Isis Palma, Carlos Bravo, Isabella Arza, Caila Katz, Michelle Gordon, Ava Bean) make the audience feel as though the world of “The Little Mermaid” is populated by multitudes.

Movement directors Luciano Cortés and Lauren Gaspard make a critical contribution to the underwater scenes, more significant in this production since costume creators Banda-Rodaz and Ortega opted not to go with mermaid tails.  When they’re under the sea, the actors undulate, sometimes gently holding their forearms out as if they’re being moved by currents.  The illusion of bodies in water is yet another example of Rodaz’s attention to detail.

Go to Area Stage’s lively “The Little Mermaid” during the remaining two weeks of its run and you’ll experience a world full of glitter, bubbles and a whole lot of talent.  Not the least of which is the achievement of Rodaz, whose imagination and love of immersive theater very much justify the buzz about his work.

WHAT: Disney’s “The Little Mermaid”

WHERE: Area Stage Company production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday, 1 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, through Aug. 27

COST:  $110 VIP (with immersive seating), $83.50 general admission, $52 students 3-22 (must show student ID), $31 lap seating (day of show only at box office)

INFORMATION: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com.

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