The Little Mermaid Live! could have been called The Little Mermaid In Concert, as that's all the live production turned out to be--a series of set pieces instead of a full live musical.
During the advertising of the live production, I don't recall seeing anything that let viewers know the special was going to be comprised of half live show, half animated film. That fact was casually mentioned in the commercials the night of the production, which immediately gave me pause. I think I can speak for all of us when I say we were expecting something along the lines of NBC and FOX's live productions, which shoot for the full Broadway experience for the TV audience. Instead, we got a production from ABC that relied heavily on the animated film to the point of laziness.
There was no attempt at using merely "half" of the animated film to introduce scenes, as advertised. What we got was a show that let the film play for long stretches of time, as if we were all at a family drive-in theater. The live special seemed like it cheated all of us out of what could have been great moments. Imagine if we got to see Queen Latifah's Ursula traipse around the stage doing her makeup while she introduces herself to Ariel (Auli'i Cravalho), or if we actually had a live-action King Triton. Instead, we had to see tons of long clips from the film, clips that could have been acted out live on stage. Yet the most unforgivable act of all was the usage of the entire ending scene from the animated film as the "live" finale, with the stars of the show only coming back out for a final bow. This is not what I envisioned for a live performance.
While the production team's decision to lean heavily on the animated film continues to leave many viewers baffled, there were some gems of the night, with Queen Latifah being the highlight. Fans anticipated that she was going to kill it as Ursula, and she did not disappoint. Latifah provided the lagging show with the life it needed. Her intense and campy performance captured the fun essence of Ursula. If the show was just about her, it would have been a hit. In fact, many folks online felt like she saved the night. If there isn't a petition to recast the live-action Ursula from Melissa McCarthy to Queen Latifah, it needs to be started ASAP.
Amber Riley did her best with the limited time she was given on stage as the Emcee for Triton's daughters. She sang with the gusto we've come to expect from her, and for the time she was on-stage, she captivated with her stage presence. It's a pity she wasn't given an actual role as one of Triton's daughters. Instead, she just played a random Black human woman wearing a white gown who lives under the sea since she didn't have any fins at all. Perhaps she was supposed to be a talking bleached coral? One can only guess.
Shaggy as Sebastian gave the most amusement of the night, but for all the wrong reasons. Personally, I think he did a fine job with his singing and on-stage charisma. Though I do have to admit it was a performance that felt less like Shaggy acting and more like Shaggy putting on a concert of his songs. But what really displeased some viewers was his lack of choreography and the costume design team's inability to create a costume that looked closer to a crustacean.
My theory is that production was well aware of how the character Sebastian has been ridiculed for years as a type of stereotypical character, so they wanted to provide some level of dignity to the role by allowing Shaggy to look cool. But in trying to block controversy, they over-corrected, giving us Shaggy in a costume that looks like his regular attire. There wasn't a lot of imagineering (to use a Disney Parks word) done to make Shaggy's costume look more crab-like, and that's a shame. His costume didn't feel like it came from the same team who dreamed up Queen Latifah's immaculate Ursula costume or even John Stamos' ridiculous Chef Louis attire. Let's hope Daveed Diggs gets a better costume in the 2020 live-action film.
Cravalho was passable as Ariel. If I was grading it, I'd give her a solid B or even B+ for her performance. Considering how sparse the actual acting and singing were in this production, she did all she was asked to do, which is to look like a proper doe-eyed princess and portray Ariel's curious spirit. However, instead of being consistently engaged in Cravalho's performance, I found myself wondering how Halle Bailey will tackle the role when she dons her fins in the live-action film. Ditto for Graham Phillips as Prince Eric. I've personally always found Prince Eric to be a bland character, and unfortunately, Phillips didn't add any extra oomph to the character to make me care about him outside of just being the object of Ariel's desire. But, again, Phillips did what he was asked to do, which was to act like a handsome prince looking for the girl of his dreams. Perhaps the production would have served these two characters more if it was actually a live musical production instead of a bunch of set pieces. The characters needed room to grow as the story developed, and we didn't get that story development. Instead, the production seemed to rely on viewers having already seen the animated movie.
Overall, it felt like nostalgia and the audience already knowing the story was relied upon. To that end, it wasn't very engaging, even though it consistently tried to be by giving the live audience attendees props to wave around as an interactive element. To quote my sister, who watched it with me, "This was just a waste of time! Do you know what I could have gotten done?" I think we all could have had much better use of time without The Little Mermaid Live!, even if that time was used to simply go to sleep.
Photo: Getty Images/ABC
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