BEVERLY — “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” lands at the North Shore Music Theatre with a satisfying splash, making imaginative use of the arena’s circular stage, multiple entrances, and creative set pieces to transport audiences from under the sea to dry land and back again.
Director Michael Heitzman has not only found some powerhouse performers for the principal roles, he’s created a remarkably fast-paced flow for the show, keeping it moving even when some of the numbers added for the transition from the 1989 hit film to the 2008 Broadway production slow the action to a crawl. It’s not that the additional songs are weak — in fact, “Positoovity” serves as a terrific second act opener and “She’s in Love” is a fun spoof of ’60s girl groups — it’s just that the late Howard Ashman was a lyricist with that rare combination of sincerity and sharp, sly wit. Lyricist Glenn Slater is certainly competent, and the stage show needed more than the film’s seven songs, but several of the Menken/Slater songs feel uninspired and pad the show rather than add interest.
As the mermaid Ariel, NYU undergrad Adrienne Eller has a singing voice that sounds exactly like the film’s Jodi Benson on “Part of Your World,” but she adds her own bit of playfulness and personality to the role. Her sidekicks Scuttle the seagull (Freddie Kimmel) and Flounder the fish (Shawn Platzker) have had their roles beefed up, with Scuttle opening the second act with “Positoovity” and Flounder hamming it up as a skater boy with a crush on Ariel. As Sebastian the crab, Ariel’s sometime guardian, J. Cameron Barnett doesn’t quite master the island rhythms made famous in “Under the Sea,” but he does display the comic chops that kept my eight-year-old companion excited about his every appearance.
As Prince Eric, the love interest for whom Ariel swaps her mermaid tail for legs, Bruce Landry has a knockout voice, but unfortunately he’s given the filler songs “Her Voice” and “One Step Closer.” Landry and Eller have enough chemistry together to keep our interest, and Doug Wright’s book offers just the right amount of dialogue to tie the scenes together neatly while offering enough time for Howard C. Jones’s impressive set changes. My favorites include Heitzman’s simple addition of puppets on sticks to represent schools of fish, jellyfish, and other sea creatures; some judicious flying sequences; and the appearance of Prince Eric’s ship, which magically turned a round stage into an elongated boat and then collapsed the bow into the stern as a storm rocked the seas and sent Eric overboard.
But no matter how clever the direction, this production of “The Little Mermaid” belongs to Kecia Lewis, who plays Ursula the Sea Witch with a delicious combination of sassy blueswoman and evil sorceress. Lewis’s voice rocked the rafters with “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” and the use of both her eight-legged gown and her hench-eels Flotsam (Jeremy Pasha) and Jetsam (Paul Louis Lessard) — who glide around the stage on Heelys — was so commanding it was almost sad to see her destroyed.
Bruce Barnes conducts the 12-piece orchestra through Menken’s spritely score with a joyful sense of rhythm that keeps up with Heitzman’s flow without ever feeling rushed. The North Shore Music Theatre’s production is of such high quality that it stands on its own as an engaging adaptation of the beloved film.