By ROBERT DIGITALE
You know you’re in for a little different theater experience when munchkins walk into the lobby dressed in costume as the show’s heroine.
Such was the case at the opening night of Santa Rosa Junior College’s “Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” a holiday treat for the young and the young at heart. The production delights as both spectacle and theater. It features a menagerie of eye-catching undersea creatures, lively show tunes and a cast strong enough to carry this much-loved tale of a heroine longing to transcend one world for another.
The college’s theatre department has long been known for offering up crowd-pleasing fall musicals. Some memorable past shows, including “Phantom of the Opera” or “Les Miserables,” skewed toward a slightly older family crowd. In contrast, the audience program proclaims that “The Little Mermaid” will fit the bill for those ages 6 and above.
Older patrons needn’t worry. The production has much in its favor, including not one but two Oscar-nominated best songs (“Kiss the Girl” and “Under the Sea,” the latter the actual 1990 Academy Award winner.) And the success of the 1989 movie on which the play is based has been credited with helping launch a series of animated features dubbed the “Disney Renaissance.” Think “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.” (Fun fact from Time magazine: In the quarter century after the debut of “The Little Mermaid,” Disney won the Oscar for best song 10 times, including in 2014 for “Let it Go” from “Frozen.”)
A big part of this production’s success lies with its cast, starting with Ellie Condello as the wide-eyed teenager Ariel. When on opening night she sang “Part of Your World,” the musical shifted into a higher gear. Her voice wowed us, and she used it effortlessly to make the melody soar heavenward and to delicately return it to earth.
Other cast members also propelled the story forward, especially the women in spot-on musical performances. They include Sandy Brown as the sea witch Ursula, Sidney McNulty as Scuttle and, in the role of Ariel’s six mermaid sisters, Stacy Rutz, Ella Park, Bethany Cox, Shayla Nordby, Emma LeFever and Sarah Christensen.
Much of the show’s tension concerns women: the evil witch seeking dominion over the sea, and the little mermaid willing to risk her soul in order to become the prince’s love. Given that, the two leading male actors get credit for adding substance to the nature of the inevitable female conflict. Armand Beikzadeh as Prince Eric portrayed a young man as considerate as he is dashing, while Vince Bertsch as King Triton gave us a father who at times misunderstands his daughter but nonetheless willingly sacrifices himself in order to rescue her.
The musical’s scene-stealer is Roberto Perez Kempton as Chef Louis, who brings a manic physicality to seafood preparation in “Les Poissons.” Also drawing a share of the laughs are Anthony Martensen as Flounder and Jordan Diomandé as Sebastian. Diomandé shone as the vocal maestro for “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.”
The play’s spectacle includes designer Peter Crompton’s handsome, columned set; the imaginative costumes and makeup of mermaids and sea creatures; the seahorse and jellyfish puppets; and the “waves” of fabric that at times wash over the cast and portions of the audience.
Music/vocal director Janis Dunson Wilson leads an eight-piece orchestra that dishes up catchy calypso numbers with gusto.
A tip of the hat to director John Shillington and the remaining cast members, Grace Reid, Geoffrey Stuart Nixon, Evan Espinoza, Griffin Tatum, Kindred Tatum, Hector Martinez, Jerimiah Nguyen, Victor McAllister-Montez, Jake Wiggins, Sydnee Evans, Emma Ethington, Amelia Parreira, Jessica Joy Ramalia, Gabriela Muca, Abby Volz and Brett Mollard.
The good news is “The Little Mermaid” has nine remaining performances, with the first of those shows playing Friday night after Thanksgiving. Please note those shows all will be held at the Maria Carrillo High School Theatre, 6975 Montecito Blvd. (The college’s Burbank Auditorium is undergoing renovation). For tickets, click here.
Still to come this season are productions of “Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter,” March 9 to 18, and “Into the Woods,” April 20 to May 6.