How did she do it? Even a decade later, the question must haunt Disney Theatrical Productions (it certainly fascinates me, and I don’t have tens of millions riding on the answer). How did Julie Taymor turn The Lion King—far from the jewel of the Disney crown—into an epochal hit that’s also a bona fide work of art? The company had achieved Broadway success before the show’s 1997 premiere, and has enjoyed some since. Still, when everybody has forgotten Aida and Beauty and the Beast in 50 years’ time, people will go on talking about Taymor’s giant puppets. Hell, they’ll probably still be onstage.
For The Little Mermaid, Disney’s third attempt in as many years to duplicate Taymor’s achievement (lasting aesthetic triumph + dump trucks full of money), the company has gone upmarket. It has entrusted the story of mermaid Ariel (Sierra Boggess) falling for a handsome bipedal prince (Sean Palmer) to Francesca Zambello, who’s known mainly for her opera work. She has tasked her designers, some of whom have bios riddled with gigs at the Met and La Scala, with creating an undersea world while abiding by the somewhat quixotic rule “No wires, no water.”
As it happens, you’ll still spot the occasional wire, as when Ariel is hoisted upwards to join the human world in the fly space of the Lunt-Fontanne. But you won’t see water. In fact, you won’t even imagine water—which, in a fish story like this one, is an ominous sign. The wobbly charm of this musical, the way its bursts of fantasy keep sputtering into stretches of tedium, gives us the clearest sense yet of why it’s so tricky to make these much-loved Disney stories come to life onstage.
Showing an opera director’s flair for the monumental, Zambello and scenic designer George Tsypin adorn the stage with grand structures, including a pair of huge rotating iridescent something-or-others. (Imagine a candlestick bisected by a sunflower—only it’s 30 feet tall and made of shimmery plastic.) Later, the villainous Ursula (Sherie Rene Scott, lavishly overqualified for the role) appears in a pod surrounded by huge dangling tentacles, as befits a treacherous octopus/sea witch. A floating boat that spans the width of the stage and strange seashell contraptions are among the show’s other expensive-looking flourishes.
The ooh-ahh factor of all this stage wizardry has its gratifications—I like the big toys of opera as much as the next guy—but it leads Zambello into the same trap that foiled her recent Disney predecessors. The consistent lesson of these musicals is that once you start to tell a fantastical story through gee-whiz stagecraft—whether it’s the clever trickery of Mary Poppins or the dazzling holographic swirls in the opening moments of Tarzan—the human-scale moments had better be wildly interesting to keep up. Yet even with as sharp a dramatic mind as Doug Wright's (I Am My Own Wife, Quills) aboard to stretch the 83-minute movie into a 140-minute musical, I had to keep reminding myself to pay attention. The big scenic flourishes and bland storytelling never got my imagination firing—never persuaded me to think that the actors scooting around on their Heelys really were mermaids or evil eels or any other freaky aquatic beasts.
One day, some Broadway director is going to figure out how to make the holograms and glowing sets and all the other tricks of the Disney imagineers tell some devastatingly entrancing story onstage. Until that day, the radically lo-fi approach of Julie Taymor, inviting the audience to imagine a far-out world instead of trying to depict it in detail, seems by far the most rewarding way to capture that old Disney magic—or any other kind, for that matter.