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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE LITTLE MERMAID
at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater

THE TALE BEHIND THE TAIL
By Mark Blankenship

  Sierra Boggess/PH:Joan Marcus

Disney's stage adaptation of The Little Mermaid fails all over the place. The cast may be talented, but they're overshadowed by ugly design, generic choreography, and confusing direction. The songs from the 1989 animated film may be delightful, but they're practically obliterated by Doug Wright's clunky book and the bland new score from Alan Menken and Glenn Slater. Ultimately, the show is just an expensive tourist trap.

But really, crappy musicals with enormous budgets are their own Broadway sub-genre. What makes The Little Mermaid so uniquely awful-and for me, infuriating-is how it sells female subservience as a glittering princess fantasy.

It doesn't have to be that way. Current Disney film Enchanted
inverts the traditional princess story-in which a helpless lass needs a man to make her happy-by letting its heroine both save her fella's life and explain what she needs in a partner. Even in the original Mermaid film, plucky Ariel at least shows streaks of independence as she leaves her underwater home to marry a human.

But on stage the story becomes a warning about the dangers of female sexuality.

Who's the villainess? Ursula, sister of King Triton (Norm Lewis) and daughter of the previous king of the sea. We never hear about her mother, so right away she's an oddball for being a woman who's on the same level as the sea's current father.

Because she has demanded too much power, Ursula has been banished.

She's forced to live apart from the kingdom, accompanied only by sycophantic eels (Derrick Baskin and Tyler Maynard).

She does have a magic shell that her father left her, but she wants Triton's inheritance as well: a three-pointed trident.

In other words, Ursula has a vaginal symbol, and she wants her brother's phallic one. She wants the authority of masculinity, and that's what makes her evil.

Ariel (Sierra Boggess) stumbles into Ursula's web just when she's reaching sexual maturity. All of her friends keep telling her she shouldn't leave the home she knows-where her father is in charge-but she keeps yearning to live above the sea.

Sensing a chance to gain power, Ursula concocts a scheme to transform Ariel into a human, but deprive her of a voice. Mute, she must make Prince Eric (Sean Palmer) kiss her, or she will become Ursula's eternal slave. The witch's ultimate plan is to trade Ariel's soul for Triton's, thus making Ursula empress of the ocean.

That's an insidious twist. A powerful woman goes mad, exploiting the virginal innocence of a young girl, and she assumes the girl's father will sacrifice his life for hers. Put another way: Men will protect women as long as they are weak, but if women become strong, men will reject them until they go beserk.

And what happens? Triton does end up in Ursula's control, until Ariel smashes her aunt's magical shell. Vaginal symbol destroyed, Ursula vanishes, and Triton regains his mighty staff. Immediately afterward, he passes his daughter to Prince Eric for a wedding.

There's a line in the script about Ariel choosing to be with her husband instead of being given to him, but that's a cheap empowerment.

In destroying Ursula's shell, Ariel has left the male-dominated world intact. The good, virginal girl doesn't let the cruel, mighty woman get her way, so order is restored. Men are still in charge. Ladies still love them for it. Girls in the audience get another lesson on why they should never want too much.

I'm certain that no one connected to the show sees it this way, but that's what it means to me. I hear the story behind the story, and it makes me clench my fists.

 


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