Zilker Theatre Productions’ The Little Mermaid

Dynamite vocals and grand visuals overcome the musical's narrative weaknesses to satisfy audiences nostalgic for Disney's classic

I'm just going to come right out and say it: I've never seen Disney's animated film The Little Mermaid. Go ahead, tell me I "didn't have a childhood." The truth is, dear reader, I did this for you. I knew that one day I'd be called upon to give as objective a review of Zilker Theatre Productions' 2019 summer musical as possible. You're welcome.

With the outdoor theatre company's staging being my first real exposure to the beloved classic, I was eager to see how ZTP would capture the visual magic that defined Disney's hand-drawn animation renaissance (especially at a time when live-action/CGI remakes constantly rob classics of their creative magic).

Given the sheer amount of manpower that Zilker Theatre invests in its free, family-friendly summer musicals, I wasn't surprised to find myself transported beneath the waves by the production's visuals alone. Chris Conard's shimmering light design, combined with Ismael Soto III's well-crafted set (boasting hidden compartments, an acroyoga setup used to creatively simulate drowning, and even a slide for performers to zip down platforms), provided the perfect setting for outstanding ensemble numbers. Songs such as "Under the Sea" became smorgasbords of light, color, and movement, made grander still by Jennifer Davis' visually arresting costumes. 

The Little Mermaid's non-musical scenes, however, fumble the momentum established by these rich displays, resulting in a narrative that feels glossed over. In the title role of Ariel, Sarah Zeringue displays both vocal prowess and a dancer's gracefulness. But with a rushed script holding her back from genuine development, it's only when Ariel's voice is stolen that she comes into her own as a character. 

In the role of her square-chinned love interest, ZTP veteran Travis Gaudin plays Prince Eric with puppy dog-like obliviousness. A level-headed heroine corralling her lovable doofus can be fun (as I saw earlier this year in TexARTS' production of Xanadu), but this dynamic is only as strong as its couple's chemistry. The Little Mermaid's book seems to equate Ariel and Eric's pre-established recognizability with legitimate character development, leaving Zeringue and Gaudin few opportunities to build an onstage relationship.

Credit where it's due, director Scott Shipman does find avenues for meaningful characterization. Actor Brandon Lozano brings a gentle tenderness to domineering Triton. When this sea king angrily punishes his daughter's disobedience, it's clearly from a place of misplaced sorrow rather than cold authority. Meanwhile, Ariel's mer-sisters bring to the stage eight distinct, consistently entertaining energies, while Coty Ross Williams' show-stealing turn as flamboyant baddie Ursula is as iconic as ... well, a Disney villain. 

Zilker's Mermaid dips its toe in originality, but never strays far from its source. The presentation might not stack up to, say, The Lion King's stage adaptation, where inspired directorial decisions capture and enhance the original film's spirit. Still, there's a lot of heart and creativity baked into this production, clearly communicating why the film is still considered a masterpiece today. ZTP's apt combination of music, visuals, and dynamite vocal performances builds upon the audience's nostalgia for the original film, ensuring that most will leave the hillside satisfied. Maybe I shot myself in the foot by not engaging with the source material first, but considering that this production's parts are greater than its narrative whole, I can't say I wasn't entertained.

The Little Mermaid

Beverly S. Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater, 2206 William Barton Dr., 512/479-9491
Through Aug. 17
Running time: 2 hr., 35 min.

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Zilker Theatre Productions, Zilker Summer Musical, Scott Shipman, Sarah Zeringue, Travis Gaudin, Chris Conard, Ismael Soto III, Jennifer Davis

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