PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Little Mermaid — Starfish Express

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11 Jan 2008

Wet was the operative word Jan. 10 when The Little Mermaid made her spectacularly big splash on the Main Stem.

But the waterworks were restricted to the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre where, for the fifth time, a Disney film — through some very expensive and industrious mouse-made magic — turned into a Broadway musical.

Even the promised downpour was reduced to a drizzle that lightly peppered the first-nighters — theatrical top-tier types and assorted stars, conspicuously — as they made their way five blocks up Broadway to the elaborate afterparty at Roseland. And, at party's end, even the reluctant drizzle had fizzled. "Disney-dust," explained one of the revelers.

Uncle Walt's elves — led by three brand-new recruits from the field of opera (director Francesca Zambello, set designer George Tsypin and costume designer Tatiana Noginova) — worked overtime to push the boundaries of the stage into a new dimension.

The curtain rises on a 19th century whaling ship manned by a manly assortment of human hearties, and, after a boisterous opening number ("Fathoms Below"), the vessel sails away — not into the sunset but upwards into the rafters — and the sea level rises with it until the entire stage is engulfed in a watery wonderland, putting the audience (as the show's Oscar-winning song goes) "Under the Sea." You have magically arrived in Subterrania, where an aquacade of characters glides swimmingly across the stage on wheeled Heelys.

"Under the Sea" was the one Oscar lyricist Howard Ashman personally received. He died of AIDS, at age 40, nine days before he was cited a second time — for "Beauty and the Beast." His writing partner, composer Alan Menken, went on to win eight Oscars and has expanded his original score with ten new songs, lyricked by Glenn Slater. Headed for Broadway are two more movies they've musicalized: Leap of Faith and Sister Act.

The Little Mermaid has grown exponentially with every media move — from four pages of Hans Christian Andersen to 83 minutes of film animation in 1989 to a two and a half hour musical extravaganza. On Broadway, Doug Wright was tapped to tell the tail of Ariel, who cuts a deal with a sea witch to swap her fins for feet so she could live and love among humans.

Standing out among the first-class assortment of first-nighters who filed into the theatre were two actresses who voiced those combative characters in the feature-length cartoon almost two decades ago — Jodi Benson, the angelic Ariel, and Pat Carroll, the awful Ursula.

Benson was not surprised by the Broadway reincarnation of her film: "I knew that we were talking about it for the last ten years. I am thrilled to finally be here and share this with my family." That would be McKinley, 9; Delaney, 6, and husband Ray Benson.

"I did a strange thing. When I married Ray, I took his last name professionally. Is that bizarre? It was Marvin Hamlisch who made me do that. It was the show here at this theatre — Smile — that made me change my name to my husband's name. We just got married right before the show opened. Marvin said, 'Change that name. I can't spell your real name.' This is where 'Mermaid' started for me, at this theatre. Howard wrote and directed Smile." Not only is she resolutely relocated to Los Angeles, "This is my first Broadway show I've seen since I was in Crazy for You." But she still leaves the door ajar for any offers.

When the two Ariels collided later in the evening in the Roseland press area, before the pleased paparazzi, both cried for happy. "All we wanted to do was hug each other," said this year's Ariel, Sierra Boggess, who makes her Broadway bow in the title role. "It was just so cool. She's so sweet. She said, 'My eyes are red from crying all night.' I can't imagine what it must have been like for her to watch this story done all these years later."

Benson found it be "a pretty overwhelming event. You just relive every moment, every nuance. I liked everything that they added to it, and I love the new music. It's fantastic."

Those were not the only tears Boggess shed that evening. She broke down when she came out for the curtain call to the tune of her big ballad in the show. It happens nightly, she said.

"I have this thing about when the music changes for the final bow for the final character. It was choreographed that when the music changes to 'Part of Your World' when I bow, it makes me cry every night. Ever since I was little, that has been a theme I've had."

In a gown by Calvin Klein, with necklace, bracelet and earrings by Verdura, she looked very much a princess off-stage — and she was well-aware that a whole generation of young girls would hold her up as a heroine. "I do realize that. It's still really surreal. People were asking me, 'How does it feel that you were cast?' and 'This could be your Broadway debut,' and now that it's happening I still feel that I'm waiting for it because I just can't believe that it has actually happened. Maybe tomorrow, when I wake up . . ."

Not that she doesn't fully realize that she has paid her way. "It is definitely the hardest work that I've ever done in a show. I never get a break on stage. I'm doing stuff on Heelys which is a completely different way of moving. It's almost like a 150-minute workout, and also, the physical stuff that I do in the second act because I don't have a voice — it's a lot of work, but it's so much fun at the same time. I'm working really hard."

Carroll is best remembered for her one-woman show, Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein. "It's still my favorite. You don't do that hard work without remembering the great joy. In 1999 I did Electra on Broadway with Zoe Wanamaker, and that was my last appearance in New York, but I continue working in films. I think, for an old gal, that I'm doing okay."

The broad-stroked villainous waves she made for Ariel is another happy memory. Ursula is the underwater version of Cruella De Vil, an octopus with eight undulating tentacles. "It's a wonderful film, and I think it will last. As my kid said, 'Mother, no matter what you've done in the theatre or elsewhere, your great-great-grandchildren will be able to see this.' I said, 'Yes, and they'll think their great-great-grandmother was a squid.'"

The role has been radically reconceptualized for the stage — from a braying, Sherman tank matron into a curvaceous, cunning siren, played with obvious relish by Sherie Rene Scott. "It has been changed, but it would have to be for this theatre because you can do with a drawing hand what you can't do in live theatre," reasoned Carroll. "It's impossible. I'm anxious to see the technical aspects of making an ocean — now, that's exciting."

Scott has always been one for working the costume, but even she had to admit that her elaborate octopus attire tops her fashion-show sequence from Aida. "Bob Crowley is a genius — there's no doubt about that — but I only think in terms of costume changes, and in this show, they're weighty, but I don't have to change costumes a lot. And that's great. This is maybe the biggest — we've got to research this — but I believe it may be the biggest costume ever on Broadway. Yet they made it so functional and so fun. Evil must be invigorating. I dunno, but it seems to be for me."


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