Theatre review: Musical Theatre West’s The Little Mermaid

From left: Katharine McDonough (Ariel) and Marc Cedric Smith (King Triton) in Musical Theater West’s The Little Mermaid

Disney’s The Little Mermaid, at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center through July 28, is everything you’d expect if you’ve seen the 1989 animated film. But Musical Theatre West’s very magical production brings the story to life in a visually stunning way, with watery set designs and colorful costumes, as well as excellent singing by the energetic cast.

The story is based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and centers on Princess Ariel (Katharine McDonough), the red-haired, fish-tailed little mermaid of the title, who falls in love with the human Prince Eric (David Burnham) as she saves him from drowning. Infatuated by everything human, Ariel has no problem accepting an offer from her evil Aunt Ursula (Cynthia Ferrer) to trade her beautiful voice for legs in order to be with him.

That the entire stage seems under water is a delightful accomplishment by scenic designer J. Branson. Through kaleidoscopic video projection and blue and green lighting (designed by Paul Black), plus sparkly curtains, the undersea realm of Ariel’s father, King Triton (Marc Cedric Smith), is made palpably real. Colorful costuming (Leon Dobkowski) and neon wigs (Michon Gruber-Gonzales) on the various underwater denizens add to the effect, making the surface world– the shore and the prince’s palace– seem rather drab and boring in comparison. (One wonders what Ariel sees in it.)

The prince himself, though, is wonderfully played by the animated Burnham, who also sings very well. That’s important because McDonough as Ariel has an exceptional voice– clear, pitch-perfect and resounding. But it’s Ferrer as the power-hungry, half-octopus Aunt Ursula who ultimately steals the show with her malicious bravado, supported by two sneaky henchmen Flotsam (Jacob Hoff) and Jetsam (Matt Braver).

And Jalon Matthews does justice to his protective crab character, Sebastian, whose Caribbean accent infuses the production with melodic fun. His “Under the Sea” number fabulously showcases the talented ensemble cast. Ariel’s other friends– lovelorn Flounder (Connor Marsh) and silly seagull Scuttle (Joe Abraham)– also add verbal and physical humor as they aid her journey.

Rounding out the cast are Ariel’s six mermaid sisters– each with a unique personality, most pronounced in Fatima El-Bashir as Aquata– and Eric’s conservative but likable guardian Grimsby (Martin Kildare). The entire cast sings, dances and even swims and flies through the air with professional enthusiasm.

In Andersen’s original story, the little mermaid’s feet burn sharply when she walks and she jumps back into the sea by the end, turning to foam. Because, really, is it ever okay to trade your voice for anything? But in this tune-filled version, the challenges of life and love are readily overcome with the help of a singing crab, wishful thinking and Disney magic. Such candy-coated sweetness goes down easily, especially with the young, though everyone will enjoy The Little Mermaid’s transporting visuals and enchanting vocals.

Musical Theatre West’s The Little Mermaid continues at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E. Atherton St., Long Beach, through July 28, with performances this Thursday at 8pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm, and Sundays at 1pm & 6pm. Tickets start at $20. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 856-1999 x4 or visit


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