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The Little Mermaid Live! is a strange but mostly charming hybrid

Photo: Eric McCandless (ABC)

The power of live theater comes from an audience and a group of performers investing in a collective imagined world together. The live TV musical format pioneered by NBC’s The Sound Of Music Live! back in 2013 has always been at a slight disadvantage in that each commercial break momentarily shatters that shared world. ABC’s The Little Mermaid Live! throws yet one more spanner into the works by playing the 1989 movie in between the live musical numbers. That makes it hard to fully invest in either the movie or the live performances because you keep waiting for one to interrupt the other (or for a commercial break to interrupt them both). This would be a completely nonsensical way to experience The Little Mermaid for the first time. But, as original Ariel voice actor Jodi Benson notes at the top of the broadcast, this whole thing is mostly designed as a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the animated classic. This is a love letter to Disney fans, not an intro for new viewers. And, as such, it mostly works as a messy but charming hybrid event.

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By my timing, the live action performances take up about 35 minutes of this two-hour broadcast, so maybe not quite the “half original film, half live spectacle” breakdown Benson promised, even accounting for commercials. Still, ABC clearly pulled out all the stops in trying to jazz up its live numbers with Cirque du Soleil-inspired wirework, Muppets-inspired puppetry, and Broadway-inspired dancing. The show opens with two big production numbers that weave in and around the movie fairly seamlessly. “Fathoms Below” shows off the athleticism of the dance ensemble (and a live dog!), while “Daughters Of Triton”—led by Glee’s Amber Riley in a largely unadvertised appearance—highlights some absolutely fabulous costume design that reimagines Ariel’s sisters as mermaid showgirls.

The rest of the numbers are more of a mixed bag. Making those mermaid showgirl outfits must have eaten up all of the costume designers’ time because they resort to throwing the ensemble into vaguely aquatic snuggies for “Under The Sea,” while Shaggy’s Sebastian barely even gets a costume at all. The evening’s exuberant, frenetic staging is a bit too much at times, pulling focus from the performers and their storytelling. Director Hamish Hamilton is best known for his work helming Super Bowl halftime shows, so it makes sense that he might not be the most character-focused director. It also doesn’t help that the actors seem just a little nervous about nailing intricate choreography and extensive prop work during their one and only chance to get it right.

Photo: Eric McCandless (ABC)

During “Part Of Your World,” Auli‘i Cravalho has to belt while wearing a mermaid tail and being hoisted through the air on wires, which is a lot to ask of someone, even an erstwhile Moana. (I do love that Disney will apparently only cast Cravalho as a human who wants to be on the ocean or a mermaid who wants to be on land.) The wirework definitely looks cool, but it emphasizes spectacle to the detriment of the emotions that made that song such an iconic part of the Disney canon to begin with. Still, Cravalho is a winning enough presence that she mostly makes up for the bungled high notes and rushed nervousness that occasionally characterizes her performance. The same goes for Graham Phillips’ affable take on Prince Eric.

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The Little Mermaid Live! is plagued by the same problems that have plagued all of these live musicals: Terrible sound design; an audience who’s encouraged to treat the show as a rock concert, not a piece of storytelling; and a cameraperson who seems to be figuring out what to film on the fly. Some of the best moments slow things down and just let the performers shine. Asked to deliver high camp and a quick costume change, Queen Latifah absolutely nails her performance of Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” She’s the clear MVP of the night, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that her styling and costuming are fantastic to boot.

Photo: Mitch Haaseth (ABC)
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Two of the other strongest moments are direct imports from the 2008 Broadway musical adaptation: Eric’s ballad “Her Voice” and the Eric/Ariel duet “If Only.” Both lend themselves well to character-focused staging, and the live broadcast doesn’t bog them down with unnecessary complexities. The “If Only” sequence, in particular, features a beautifully simple bit of stagecraft that sees Ariel and Eric standing on opposite sides of a wall. It’s a far more effective choice than the overcomplicated staging of “Part Of Your World” or its reprise, both of which feature background dancers who distract from Cravalho’s performance. Musical theater may be known for its glitz and glam, but sometimes simpler is better.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, John Stamos has a lot of fun in a hyper-energetic, extravagantly staged performance of “Les Poissons” as Chef Louis, a role he also played in the 2016 Hollywood Bowl concert that helped pioneer this hybrid film/live performance format. Poor Shaggy, meanwhile, doesn’t make a hugely strong impression as Sebastian. Vocally, he fares better with “Under The Sea” than “Kiss The Girl,” but in both cases his low-key performance means he gets a bit lost in all the staging around him. He’s perfectly fine, but he definitely suffers in comparison to Tituss Burgess, who stole the Broadway show in his star-making turn. Given how great Amber Riley sounds while rounding out the night with a reprise of “Under The Sea,” it could’ve been hugely fun to see her take on Sebastian.

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Photo: Mitch Haaseth (ABC)

While these live musicals were once such a novelty, they’re starting to feel pretty familiar at this point. Knowing that the actors had tons of time to prepare between numbers (and that I could kind of zone out during the broadcast of a film I watched approximately 500 times during my childhood) gave the whole evening a particularly low-stakes feel. At about an hour shorter than most of these live musicals have been, The Little Mermaid Live! doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s a fun, breezy, somewhat forgettable trip back under the sea. Still, it’s always nice to remember just how much magic that original 1989 animated film holds.

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Stray observations

  • Truly, these live musicals need to stop thinking that hyping their in-studio audience into a frenzy is going to make the experience more fun for people at home. The moment of Ariel not being in her place at the end of “Daughters Of Triton” doesn’t land when the audience claps like she is.
  • That Flounder puppet is going to haunt my dreams.
  • I really enjoyed Ariel contributing some lyrics to “Under The Sea,” which I think is a new addition, even from the Broadway show.
  • “Les Poissons” ends with an all-but-invisible John Stamos quipping from behind a cloud of smoke: “I knew I should’ve played Prince Albert... or Eric.” He either accidentally misspoke or he was making a subtle plug that if they ever actually get around to doing Bye Bye Birdie Live! he should reprise his role as Albert Peterson, which he previously played on Broadway.
  • In the Broadway production, “If Only” is a quartet that also features Sebastian and Triton. It’s one of my favorite musical theater songs in recent memory, and you should definitely check it out if you haven’t heard it.
  • Relatedly, since they failed to cast Norm Lewis (or anyone) as Triton for this production, they better cast him in the upcoming live action remake! (Lewis originated the role on Broadway.)
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About the author

Caroline Siede

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.