When a standing ovation erupts spontaneously even before the final curtain has quite lowered into place, then you know the audience just loved Music Theatre's "Disney's the Little Mermaid."
The show, personally directed by Music Theatre's longtime producing artistic director Wayne Bryan, is an ambitious, almost overwhelming experience of exotic color, inventive movement, evocative designs and special technical effects that slathered on the wow factor at every turn.
Choreographer Linda Goodrich created graceful underwater ballets to contrast with landlubber royal balls while costume designer Leon Dobkowski (assistant on the Broadway originals) suggested fishy, finny, iridescent silhouettes without looking like a costume party. Set designer J. Branson and lighting designer David Neville came up with more than 20 locations, from King Triton's underwater palace to Prince Eric's castle ballroom, using huge backdrops plus animation and projections.
MTW's version is one of only three productions of the 2008 Broadway hit in the country approved by the Disney folks this summer, making it a regional premiere as it capped Music Theatre of Wichita's 40th anniversary season.
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To be sure, opening night Friday wasn't perfect. There were a few technical glitches as some glittery seaweed drops for underwater scenes ended up in an on-land beach scene or two, not to mention some skips in a projection system that caused underwater shadows and animated bubbles to be occasionally jerky rather than smooth.
But with so much going on to dazzle the eye and ear, only a, well, crab would dwell on it.
This stage version is based on the 1989 Disney film that single-handedly revived the art of animation, and it increases the music from half a dozen songs by another 20 or so from the same Oscar-winning composer, Alan Menken. Some new ones, notably involving Prince Eric and the sailors or Ariel's sister mermaids are merely pleasantly serviceable.
But others fit right with the classic original, from villainess Ursula's growly lament, "I Want the Good Times Back," to silly seagull Scuttle's bouncy "Positoovity" to the hauntingly dramatic "If Only" sung by a diverse quartet of major players (think of "Tonight" from "West Side Story").
Wichita native Desi Oakley, who grew up on stages all over town, is a beautiful Ariel, the curious and willful mermaid who falls in love with a human and defies her father to try to be with him. Notably seen here before as Dorothy in "Wizard of Oz" and Eponine in "Les Miserables," Oakley has a sparkling voice that not only hits every note with ease but also nuances the meanings beautifully. Her voice acts rather than merely sings. And her haunting "Part of Your World" gives delicious chills.
Christopher Charles Wood, a member of last season's ensemble who has since performed with the national tour of "Spring Awakening," is a strong and handsome Prince Eric, whose romantic "Her Voice" and duet with Ariel, "One Step Closer," are rich and memorable.
Lawrence Cummings (MTW's "Smokey Joe's Cafe," "The King and I") is an absolute delight as Sebastian, a crab with a Jamaican accent who fancies himself a serious music composer, sort of a Rasta Maestro, if you will. He ends up watching — and scuttling after — Ariel, and has the most familiar songs from the movie: "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl." Cummings, with his incredible pitch and vocal range plus his obvious performing joy, stops the show more than once.
Also stopping the show every time she slithers on stage in an eye-popping purple gown with tentacle-covered skirt is Karen Robu as evil sea witch Ursula, who covets Ariel's beautiful voice and intends to scam her out of it. Robu pitches herself low to begin with seductive charm (think Mae West with tentacles), then escalates to a monstrous — but spot-on — shrieking tirade. She even gets wicked laughs by using the tentacles on her costume for chorus line kicks.
Broadway veteran Kevyn Morrow (MTW's "Smokey Joe's Cafe," "Xanadu") has a solid turn as Ariel's authoritarian father, King Triton, and 10-year-old Addison Baker has a surprisingly accomplished voice and presence as Ariel's sidekick, Flounder.
Providing memorably funny — as well as musical — moments is Justin Robertson (MTW's "The Music Man," "Disney's Beauty and the Beast") as the good-hearted but dim-witted seagull, Scuttle. He mispronounces and misinterprets everything with hilarious conviction. Also funny, but in a much darker way, are Jacob Gutierrez and Cody Davis as Ursula's electric-eel minions, who act as a team to oil their way menacingly around while harmonizing their threats. They provide perfectly enjoyable shudders.
If you go 'Disney's The Little Mermaid'
What: Fifth and final show of 40th anniversary season for Music Theatre of Wichita
Where: Century II Concert Hall
Additional performances: 2 and 7 p.m. today, plus 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Aug. 14
Tickets: $57-$22 evenings, $49-$20 matinees (discounts for seniors, students, military and groups); call 316-265-3107 or go online at www.mtwichita.org