Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ Gets the Royal Treatment at Broward Center

It’s no longer an insider secret that Slow Burn Theatre Company, the resident professional theater company of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, has been delivering outstanding, often family-oriented musicals, for the past nine years. In addition to multiple local awards, the company recently garnered a major Carbonell (South Florida’s Tonys) in the category of Theatrical Excellence. Which they well deserve. For just when you might think they’ve reached the pinnacle in stagecraft and acting expertise, they come out with a new, blockbuster winner.

Slow Burn’s latest – just in time for the holidays – production of Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID (music by eight-time Academy Award winner Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman & Glenn Slater, book by Doug Wright) sizzles and dazzles from start to finish. The company’s ever-changing, integrated use of projected marine backgrounds coupled with a beautifully designed physical set is a wonder to behold – in fact, a show of its own. Music director Wilkie Ferguson and lighting designer Clifford Spulock, with sound by Slow Burn’s phenomenal artistic director, Patrick Fitzwater (who also directed this show), immediately land us in the dual-world existence of Hans Christian Andersen’s beloved fairy tale – above and below the waterline. 

But the opening Overture, composed of a medley of the Disney musical’s songs, lets us know we’re in for a more lighthearted treat. For those who grew up with the original 1837 story and its tragic ending, know that while set in the same era of kingdoms and tall ships, you’re about to see the Disneyfied, “happily ever after” version, complete with add-on comic characters. You can (and should) bring the kids.

A magical moment interrupted. There will be no saving kiss when Ursula’s evil forces
summon stormy weather for Eric and Ariel. Photo by Larry Marano.

There were plenty of children at the opening weekend Sunday matinee I attended (and what a joy to see the excitement in the little ones’ eyes and even hear some of their gleeful observations). But there were scores of adults as well, many sitting in groups – all equally charmed. In addition to what’s become Slow Burn’s de rigueur spectacular staging, they were impressed by the cast’s incredible vocals, elaborate dance moves and, for me, a chance to listen carefully and newly appreciate the clever dialogue that substituted “sea” words for common, land-based expressions. 

And then the spotlight shines on the one who the kids have come to see. Ariel, in her iconic twin fan shells, full green mermaid-tail (by costume supervisor Rick Pena) and flowing red locks (wig design also by Patrick Fitzwater) wistfully sings about her longing for “The World Above.” Melanie Fernandez’s spot-on portrayal of Ariel, in all her naivete and determination, is also blessed with an enchanting voice that never fails to lure us in – along with her prince. 

That’s the human she rescues from drowning in a sudden storm, and fall hopelessly in love with. But we first meet Prince Eric happily engaged aboard a large, fully-rigged sailing vessel. He prefers the freedom of life at sea where he’s just one of the crew and does not look forward to returning to his kingdom, marrying, and assuming the crown. In short, Eric dreams of casting off his predetermined place in life – much like Ariel. Nate Promkul kills in his role as Prince Eric. In addition to being favorably reviewed locally, the actor (as a prescient seafaring rehearsal?) also recently served as lead vocalist with Celebrity Cruises. So glad he could continue his “nautical journey” with us! Eric is joined by Alexander Blanco as Pilot, Michael Materdomini as Grimsby, and fellow sailors in the rousing number, “Fathoms Below.” 

Ariel is the youngest of seven mersisters, and they are all uniquely entertaining. Some of her six siblings also perform as part of the show’s incredible backup ensemble that frequently appears, appropriately dressed, to fit various action scenes and singing styles. This “A” list (in both name and performance) features Ashley Rubin as Adella & Ensemble, Casey Sacco as Aquata & Ensemble, Celia Hinds as Allana & Ensemble, Emily Tarallo as Arista, Ensemble & Dance Captain, Kristi Rose Mills as Andrina, and Lauren Maria Abraham as Atina. 

And how do they all move in those mermaid tales? How do they glide along in ball-fronted roller-sneakers to give that swimming impression! Then, when in their alternate roles of legged sea creatures, they simply kick up their heels … and boy can they dance! 

As for the “Under the Sea” song-and-dance extravaganza that my friend noted was worth the price of admission alone, I can’t disagree. (Though I must add that every number shines, and there’s never a lag in interest.) You might recall what a sensation a descending-through-the-air Mary Poppins made at her Slow Burn debut this past March. Well they’ve certainly perfected the method! We now witness lots of “flying” fish, jumping jelly fish and an assortment of marine life take to the air (though with ocean visuals behind them, technically, they’re in “the sea”). 

Meanwhile, neon-bright costumed creatures frolic amid an incandescent coral reef in a tap-dancing review for the ages. Throughout the show, contemporary dance and top-notch old-timey tap accompany songs that reflect calypso beats, rock, and musical standards. Choreographer Nicolette Quintero and dance captain Emily Tarallo are to be highly commended for their energetic, exciting and skillful execution throughout.

King Triton (Wilkie Ferguson) confronts his evil sister Ursula (Heather Jane Rolff) in
order to save his beloved youngest daughter, Ariel. Photo by Larry Marano.

Powerful but ultimately kind King Triton, majestically portrayed by Wilkie Ferguson (whose formidable credits include being a cast member of major Broadway musicals) owns the stage with “If Only (Triton’s Lament).” And then we meet his evil, banished sister Ursula and her slimy, slinky eel minions, Flotsam (Nolan Montgomery) and Jetsam (Matthew Brightbill) singing “Daddy’s Little Angel.” Heather Jane Rolff as Ursula is the very model of casting perfection in looks, demeanor, but especially in her thundering vocals. Our story revolves around her desire for revenge on King Triton by manipulating the child dearest to his heart, Ariel. In effect making Rolff the third star of the show. She doesn’t have that many songs – in addition to “Daddy’s Little Angel,” there’s only an Act One Finale with Ariel, and her malicious solo, “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” that’s also reprised in Act Two. But her formidable voice makes the audience want to stand up and cheer each time (and she does get the loudest applause).

Perhaps rivaling only the showstopper song that everyone recognizes by now. When Ariel discovers the human treasure of a fork, and dreams of life above the waterline, in “Part of Your World.”

Act Two opens with bird-flying antics and “Positoovity,” a song of encouragement by ugly-yet-formidable bird Scuttle (Rodney Holmes) and an ensemble of gulls. Other favorite Disney storyline additions are Ariel’s friend (though he’s hopelessly crushing on her) Flounder, touchingly and comedically enacted by Kyle Kemph. And her father-assigned guardian, though really her confidant – the heavy Jamaican-accented crab, Sebastian, played with great verve and shtick by Jesse Smith. He’s joined by various animals in a magical lake scene that finds Eric and Ariel alone on a rowboat and they are enticed to kiss (and so break Ursula’s spell) in “Kiss the Girl.” But just in the nick of time, the vengeful sea witch jolts their private moment with a ferocious storm and Eric heads back to shore.

Dedicated to following his charge everywhere, Sebastian barely escapes by the tip of his claws when he’s touted as the main dish of a royal seafood dinner. The hilarious chase scene that ensues features frantic French Chef Louis (Ryan Crout), who’s also part of the Ensemble. We enjoy the Chef’s solo, followed by a multi-Chef ode to fish-based menus, “Le Poissons.” 

Like every scene before it, the royal wedding finale is exquisitely presented. And who can argue with adding some Disney magic to our lives – especially during the holidays – to remind us of the wonders of true love, family, and going after your dreams.

17 Slow Burn Little Mermaid Nate Promkul & Melanie Fernandez. Photo by Larry Marano

I attended a standard performance that was certainly impressive enough for the kiddos (and everyone else) on its own. But Slow Burn has a history of creating special events for children and those with special needs. The sold-out Saturday opening “Under the Sea Family Celebration” on December 16 at 1 pm included a family-friendly brunch, crafts, and dance party in addition to the show, with proceeds benefiting Broward Center’s arts-in-education programs.

Coming up, the Saturday, December 23rd show at 1:30 pm is a sensory-inclusive performance with slight adjustments to offer a welcoming atmosphere for children and adults on the Autism spectrum, as well those with other sensitivity issues or developmental disabilities. It includes an adjacent ABA Centers of Florida Quiet Room with a specially trained therapist. Patrons are encouraged to bring their own headphones, fidgets, etc. The theater will also offer sensory bags with such materials for those overwhelmed by lights, sounds and crowds. Admission includes a pre-show arts and crafts activity by Young at Art and post-show meet-and-greet with cast members.  Prior to the performance, ticket holders will also receive an email with a character guide and short video about theater attendance.

Slow Burn Theatre Company’s production of Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID is playing at the Amaturo Theater of Broward Center for the Performing Arts through Sunday, December 31. The theater is located at 201 SW Fifth Avenue, Fort Lauderdale 33312. To buy tickets online, go to BrowardCenter.org or Ticketmaster.com. Or call 954-462-0222. You can also pick them up in person at Broward Center’s AutoNation Box Office.

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