Selma Arts Center makes waves with a chipper ‘Little Mermaid’

The musical production can be inconsistent, but it’s well worth a dive.

THEATER REVIEW

Come on in — the water’s fine in Selma’s “The Little Mermaid.”

Just what will you find an undetermined number of leagues under the sea? Ariel is charming, and she and her “mer-sisters” offer sweet voices and brisk comedy. Prince Eric has the ruddy, seaworthy charm of a gung-ho master mariner. With her dialed-up-Disney-villain powerhouse vocals, Ursula the Sea Witch relishes the chance to get all twitchy-evil on us. Sebastian, always near the boiling point, frets with the best of them. Even Mr. Fussypants himself, King Triton, the clueless father who’s both too stern and too indulgent in terms of spoiling his teenage daughter — he shouldn’t let her go by herself to the mall, much less the surface! — redeems himself with a memorably regal stage presence.

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Camille Gaston is a powerhouse Ursula in “The Little Mermaid.” Photo / Selma Arts Center

It’s splashy fun.

Nicolette C. Andersen and Adam Chavez, co-directors of the new Selma Arts Center production, run a (mostly) tight ship in terms of creativity, production design, acting and singing. While the ambitiously staged show does have some wobbles and inconsistent moments, you (and your children) will find much to admire.

Observations from the opening-night performance I attended:

The projections are amazing. They deserve top billing here. Designer Dominic Grijalva breaks new ground locally with effects that feel as if we’re in the water with the performers. From a swirling opening storm to a spectacular dive to the murky depths of Ursula’s zip code, I found myself thoroughly entranced. My favorite part is the way Grijalva gives a stylized, boldly graphic design to the ubiquitous waves; they’re more abstract than literal, and their near constant motion gives the whole production a “be careful or you’ll get seasick” sensibility.

Maria Monreal is an appealing and accomplished Ariel. Rather than playing this headstrong character as entitled and goo-goo-eyed, Monreal finds a slightly impertinent edge to Ariel — not enough to alter the established Disney interpretation, but enough for a subversive hint. (Or maybe it’s me just trying not to roll my eyes at the plot. I mean, come on, Ariel is willing to give up her voice, her dorsal fin, her soul — she even gives up in-the-flesh future interactions with everyone else she’s ever loved, thus ensuring a Facetime-only relationship with her family — all for the love of a guy.) Monreal’s vocals are strong, and she’s very graceful on stage as well.

The rest of the principals have some nice moments, too. Joshua Plowman makes an amiable Prince Eric. Camille Gaston gives us a delightfully wretched Ursula. A buoyant Emily Guyette perks up the song “Positoovity.” One of my favorites of the bunch is Dakota Simpson (who wowed me at the Rogue Festival just a couple of months ago in terms of acting versatility), whose Sebastian can be suitably exasperated without being too over-the-top. (Simpson’s sharp comic timing is key.) Bryan DeBaets, as King Triton, gives us booming vocals. Nirina Rabetsima, as the sidekick Flounder, is a youthful standout, offering a warm and funny performance.

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Maria Monreal, center, stars in “The Little Mermaid.” Photo / Selma Arts Center

The lighting is often good. Sometimes, it isn’t. (David Esquivel is the lighting designer.) On opening night, there were key moments when Ariel and Prince Eric were left in the dark. I loved how lights and projections worked together in such moments as the storm and Uriel’s lair, but the lighting design missed the boat a few times.

The sets are clever, but the big musical numbers aren’t always showcased to full effect. “The Little Mermaid” is a complicated show, no question, with lots of settings, including a ship, a palace and a beach (not to mention two completely different ecosystems). Scenic designers Erik Andersen and Nicolette C. Andersen do some clever work, from Ariel’s secret grotto to the use of an upstage curtain for some scene transitions. But some songs, including “Under the Sea” — which should be a highlight — have a kind of cluttered sameness to them. It’s great to have lots of activity up there on stage, but there also has to be a sense of organizing it visually for the audience, of giving our eyes dominant moments to latch onto.


Related story: Selma Arts Center opens ‘Little Mermaid’


Clutter, Part 2. Part of this is due, I suspect, to choreographers Michael C. Flores and Ben Deghand being limited by so many of their cast members on wheels. (A lot of them are on Heelys, as in the Broadway version, but a number of other conveyances are represented, including a skateboard.) There’s little sense of using the space in terms of vertical levels, either in the choreography or scenic design. Add to this the non-raked seating in the auditorium, which can block the line-of-sight for anyone sitting behind a tall patron, and it’s a problem.

Which brings me to my tangential pet peeve. Now that the Selma Arts Center has committed to such ambitious and high-quality productions, can something be done about the seating — even a temporary bleacher system?

Anyway … back to the musical numbers. Some of them work really well. My favorites are “She’s In Love,” featuring Ariel’s siblings, and an enchanting “Kiss the Girl,” which has a lot of visual appeal and robust, inspired choreography. The costumes in the show (credited to Jeanette Derr, Kimberly Houston and rentals from Springfield Little Theatre), are a bright and colorful array of fabrics and textures, making you think of the bioluminescence exhibit at an aquarium.

Sometimes small moments make lasting impressions. I’m thinking of the Chef (Jeremy Hitch) giving us a quick high-kick. Or Flotsam (Cady Mejias) and Jetsam’s (Derek Guedea) Goth-meets-puppet-show shenanigans. Or Ursula’s hair, which made me think of cotton candy in a wind tunnel. On the other hand, a small glitch at the end of the first act in which the house lights were turned on, followed by an awkward denouement on stage just before intermission, also made an impression. You’ve got to be ready to go on opening night.

Finally, I want to acknowledge two members of the ensemble for superb performances in supporting roles. Gilbert Gonzalez is so amusing and fully invested in each and every moment as a seagull that I ended up watching him almost throughout the entire “Positoovity” scene. And Kaylene Howard is hilarious as the snippy mer-sister Aquata. Again, she’s totally committed every second she’s on stage. Each of these performers brings an intangible sense of joy to their smaller roles. And that, in turn, is what can make community theater such a delight.


Show info

“The Little Mermaid,” through May 26. Selma Arts Center, 1935 High St., Selma. Tickets are $19 adults, $17 students and seniors, $15 children under 13.


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Author: Donald Munro

Covering the arts in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond.

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