The lights go dark. From underneath the stage comes a mermaid, or rather a silhouette of a mermaid, swimming up — blue, silky curtains reflecting water behind her. The music is subtle, but moody. At that moment, the audience knows they’re in for a performance.
The crowd went home filled with magic and wonder Friday night after the first opening show of “The Little Mermaid” at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre. From the set to the talent and costumes, this cast not only made a classic show enjoyable, but showed the great lengths that this community’s theater talent extends to.
Even though we were all sitting in the normal plastic seats in the old theater, it felt as if we were transported “under the sea” as the set transformed into the ocean. Silky, blue backdrops came down and Princess Ariel, played by Mary Lehmann, was often lifted on strings as if she was swimming. All throughout the show, all the underwater characters never stop moving entirely, always swaying as if floating in the water. Small details like this made it clear that the director, Allyson Paris, was serious about the show being the best it could be.
The moving parts of the set make the show that much more interactive and real to the audience. The way the prince’s boat “sail” across the stage and the smoke and lights from Ursula’s lair made us feel like we were really there. Moving through the show, transitions were smooth and not only was the set, music and lighting choreographed, the cast members each had a place to be and they showed up there and brought the energy to match the enthusiastic crowd. Additionally, they worked together so well as a team that it was almost seamless, especially for the first night.
One of the most powerful performances of the night came from Emily Diener as Ursula. Diener has starred in a handful of shows in the past year and has proven herself to be an untouchable talent in the Grand Rapids theater community. As Ursula, she took her performance to the next level with her detailed costume and commitment to character. But not only does she know how to act, this actress can sing. Each scene she dominated we were left in chills as she sang her ominous songs, smoke filling the stage and little ones watching wide-eyed from their seats. I don’t think there could have been a better role for Diener in this show, and I can’t wait to see what else she does as she takes on more roles in her blossoming career as an actress.
Another hilarious performance came from Trevor Straub, who played the seagull, Scuttle. While he played a more minor role, his witty remarks and hilarious voice and costume had everyone - young and old - in laughs. Straub honed in on his character's eccentric personality and stole the show (in a good way) each time he came on stage, and added a humorous dimension to the talented cast.
Other talented performances came from Lehmann, Titus Hankins (Sebastian), Jeff Kemperman (King Triton) and Adrian Almas (Prince Eric). All these performers showed us their incredible voices in their vocal musical numbers like “Under the Sea,” and especially in the second act’s “If Only,” where the four performed a quartet.
An upcoming talent to be watched is Joey Collins, who played the role of Flounder. In his song with the mersisters, “She’s in Love,” Collins’ showed off his vocal range and kept up with the voices around him.
It was the first night, so there were some awkward slip ups but nothing unforgivable. Near the end, Lehmann’s hair got caught in Kemperman’s crown piece. Even something as minor as that, while it was comical, took us out of the magic for just the moment.
Overall, this show is one for the whole family to see. There were so many details in the production, that is was clear how much work was put into it. All aspects of the show matched the original story - even down to Ursula’s eels with their voice changing microphones and the lights on their heads, and the way they slithered around the stage - that it was like seeing a live-action version of the Disney movie.
Not only is this entertaining and full of professional talent, it will leave you and your little ones with a smile on their face, and filled with a special kind of magic that comes from a classic fairytale.
The Little Mermaid
Grand Rapids Civic Theatre
Nov. 16-Dec. 16