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'The Little Mermaid,' Heeling Hard to Broadway Port

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'The Little Mermaid,' Heeling Hard to Broadway Port

Performing Arts

'The Little Mermaid,' Heeling Hard to Broadway Port

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Last night, a new stage adaptation of Disney's film "The Little Mermaid" opened on Broadway. This morning, some pretty downbeat reviews washed up in the New York papers. Can the magic world of an animated movie - most of which takes place under water - work on stage?

Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN: Over the years, Disney has put dancing teapots and flatware on stage in "Beauty and the Beast"…

(Soundbite of movie, "Beauty and the Beast")

Unidentified Group: (As characters) (Singing) Be our guest, be our guest…

LUNDEN: …the animals of the Serengeti in "The Lion King"…

(Soundbite of movie, "The Lion King")

Ms. CARMEN TWILLIE (Sing): (Singing) …in the circle of life.

LUNDEN: …and now they've gone under the seas with "The Little Mermaid."

(Soundbite of movie, "The Little Mermaid")

Mr. SAMUEL WRIGHT: (As Sebastian) (Singing) Under the sea. Under the sea.

LUNDEN: Adapting an animated film into a stage show is a tricky business. In animation, characters can swim, fly and bend in ways that have nothing to do with the laws of physics, particularly gravity. But these laws are very much in evidence on stage, so a different kind of magic needs to be devised, says Disney Theatrical producer, Tom Schumacher.

Mr. TOM SCHUMACHER (Producer, Disney Theatricals): You can be a mermaid in an animated movie and swim. And onstage, you're obviously, no matter what, going to stand there. If we tell the audience you're under water, I think they're happy to understand that they are under water.

LUNDEN: Variety's chief theater critic, David Rooney, says in spite of the challenges, Disney managed to beat the odds 10 years ago with "The Lion King," which featured dazzling puppetry and stage pictures from Tony Award-winning director, Julie Taymor.

Mr. DAVID ROONEY: (Variety, Chief Theatre Critic): Julie Taymor's ingenuity in that show was to be able to stage a stampede of animals, you know, a drought in the Savannah Plains, you know, all of these things that were done very visually, very economically, with certain solutions that you would look at and think, oh, my God, that's so simple, and yet, at the same time, it's genius, and something that only somebody with a very interesting command of stagecraft would be able to summon up.

LUNDEN: Taymor came from the world of avant-garde theater. For "The Little Mermaid," producer Tom Schumacher turned to creators from the world of opera, like director Francesca Zambello.

In telling the story of a mermaid who falls in love with a prince, Zambello says she asked her designers to create abstract settings using translucent materials, which could transport the audience from the sea to the land in a matter of seconds.

Ms. FRANCESCA ZAMBELLO (Director, "The Little Mermaid"): We very much use a lot of plastic. And by lighting it in different ways, we suggest the underwater world, but also, it suddenly becomes the sun above. I don't want to make it sound simple, it was difficult to arrive at this solution, but it was really very much about working with special materials and creating sculpture and changing the sculpture through light and through projections.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Little Mermaid")

Ms. JODI BENSON (Actor): (As Ariel) (Singing) …up where they stay all day in the sun, wandering free, wish I could be part of that world.

LUNDEN: A big part of "The Little Mermaid's" world is under water, and choreographer Stephen Mear had to find a way to suggest swimming. He makes extensive use of Heelys, the sneakers that many kids wear which have wheels in their heels.

Mr. STEPHEN MEAR (Choreographer): I was walking through Disneyland, of all places, about two-and-half years ago, and I saw this kid just walk by me, and then suddenly whizzed by me. And I just thought, wow, that's fantastic. You know, you can dance, you can pirouette, you can jump, and then suddenly, you can just glide somewhere else.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Little Mermaid")

Mr. WRIGHT: (As Sebastian) (Singing) Sing with me now. Sha, la, la, la, la, la, my, oh, my, look like the boy too shy, ain't gonna kiss the girl.

LUNDEN: Variety critic, David Rooney, says he wasn't convinced.

Mr. ROONEY: To me, putting people on Heelys and having them wave their arms like they're swimming just didn't do it. What you get is the equivalent of an ice show. It's like a "Disney on Ice" show. It doesn't have this sort of soaring feel to it.

LUNDEN: Whatever the critical response, "The Little Mermaid," like most of the stage adaptations of Disney films, has a built-in audience - people who know and love the animated movie. And the show has been sold out since it began preview performances in November.

Producer Tom Schumacher says that's the power of the Disney brand.

Mr. SCHUMACHER: We also have 16 shows running around the world tonight. Somewhere in the world, you can see "Aida," "Beauty and the Beast," "Lion King," "Tarzan," "Mary Poppins," "Little Mermaid," "High School Musical" - it's what we do.

LUNDEN: For NPR New, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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