Review by Jason Wert
Theater productions involving only youth most often take place in a school, where the budget is limited and the performances are mainly of the level that parents and those otherwise obligated to attend have no choice but grimly smile and take one for the team because the kids worked hard in the production.
Then there are times when you have what I saw tonight at the Landers Theatre in Springfield: A production with a cast entirely under 18 who produced a performance that could stand up against many of the local shows produced by their elders. A cast that reminds us there is a wealth of talent in the Springfield area and that we have a tremendous amount of youth with incredible performing ability.
The Little Mermaid, Jr. is clearly aimed for the younger audience. However, just like most Disney products, there is enough in the script and songs for adults that they can have a great time at the show. Parents and their kids will have a great time together laughing, singing and blowing bubbles along with the show. (Yes, blowing bubbles: there’s a part in the show where if you buy one of the bubble guns on sale in the lobby you can shoot them off as part of the actual production.)
Ordinarly when you review a show, you lead off with mentioning the performances of the main characters since those are usually the strongest performers on the stage. While the actors who played Ariel, Prince Eric and Ursula were strong, there was one of the underlying players who stole every scene: Kyrie Leininger playing the role of Flounder. This 5th grader not only held her own with her older counterparts, but showed an unusually mature comedic timing and vocal delivery that many adults don’t bring to their performances. When she was part of an exchange with other characters, your eyes stayed on her. I certainly didn’t anticipate a secondary character stealing the show, but Kyrie’s performance was top for the night.
Of the three lead actors, each excelled in their own way, which makes it difficult to compare their performances.
Hayden Gish, who played the main character Ariel, brought strong vocal chops to her songs and showed an impressive volume range. Many younger singers don’t know how to use a quieter voice during songs to help heighten the emotional impact; Gish showed a well above-average talent in that area. (So much so that at times the music overwhelmed her during the quieter portions of the songs.)
During the part of the show were Ariel has no voice, she was able to use her body language and motion to effectively communicate with the audience her thoughts and feelings.
Andrew Wilson, who played Prince Eric, brought a much more straight-laced performance to the role that almost harkened to me of some of the better British actors playing royalty. He showed emotion, he tried to appear carefree, but there was still that underlying “stiff upper lip” of aristocracy. For this production, that take on the character fits perfectly, and allowed him to help drive the story without overwhelming the lead character.
Now…Ursula the sea witch. The take on this character seemed more fresh and original to me than on the other two primary characters in the story. Brianna Hobbs brought two people to mind as I watched her stalk the stage. She brought the “take no prisoners” sass of a younger Joan Rivers mixed with the joyful evilness of Eartha Kitt’s performance in another Disney production, Yzma in The Emperor’s New Groove. Hobbs dominated her time on the stage: when she was out there, you KNEW she was there. That’s not to say she was overpowering beyond her part in the show: but she has a real presence about her in that role. She inhabits Ursula.
The two young ladies who played the eels Flotsam and Jetsam, that assist Ursula in her evil plot, were especially slimy in their delivery of their lines and in their body movements on stage. I was impressed at their ability to say “eel-like” in how they slinked around the stage to conduct their villany.
And on a quick aside, someone needs to run a DNA check on Oscar Gillam, who played Chef Louis in the show. I don’t know his parents, but if that kid doesn’t have the DNA of Monty Python alum John Cleese in him, I’ll be stunned. His take on that character was so gloriously-Python like that I half expected him to start singing about Spam.
The rest of the cast did an admirable job and very rarely did I see the kind of mistake you would expect from most youth-driven productions. Other than the occasional misstep in choreography the dancers and ensemble were exactly the living backdrop and chorus the show needed to keep its forward motion.
There was one thing that happened in the background that pulled me away from the main performance during the well-known song “Kiss The Girl.” The production had two aerial silk dancers performing as part of the ensemble and while the performers weren’t doing anything that drew overt attention to themselves, I still found myself thinking “look at those incredible performers!” I couldn’t take my eyes off them as they did their routines 20 feet off the ground without a net.
The production elements of the show were outstanding. The costume design was brilliant, working in bright colors to help create the illusion of the tropical seas. The attention to detail on items such as the “human stuff” where you could see logos of well-known brands on the side of cans or coloring on items that evoke products we use daily is a nice touch.
And I really enjoyed what I’m assuming is a little inside joke of the design crew: Using several clownfish that looked exactly like the ones from Disney’s “Finding Nemo” on the heads of some of the dancing ensemble members. If no one else enjoyed it, this audience member appreciated that subtle homage to another Disney work.
I also enjoyed the way the production used black light and neon clothing effectively for the portions of the show involving Ursula; it conveyed the evil nature of the sea witch in a way that was not overtly scary and could disturb some of the younger people in the audience. I didn’t expect that take on those scenes and they came off very well in the overall experience.
Now, the show wasn’t all perfection. There were some technical glitches, mostly in the audio department. A few times the music overwhelmed the vocalists who were wearing microphones. Also, while the ensemble moved the set pieces very effectively for the most part, there were a few times some of the objects were still moving when the lights came up for the new scene. None of these things really overwhelmed the show to where it was a real problem (other than one bout of audio feedback).
The bottom line is that Springfield Little Theatre has a real winner in their production of The Little Mermaid, Jr., and are providing Springfield parents with a great show that can be enjoyed by the entire family.