Review: The Little Mermaid Jr.

When Disney closes a show on Broadway, they usually retain a version of the two-and-half-hour-long script to sell to schools and community theaters for licensing. This was the case for The Little Mermaid musical, which only lasted for a year and a half at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York and for good reason. I saw this show in 2007 when it was still in previews and felt that the extra hour of songs and dialogue did very little to enhance the story that was told in the original 1989 feature film. Based on what we know so far, it looks like the live-action adaptation coming out next month is going to add a lot more backstory and worldbuilding to justify its two-hour-and-fifteen-minute runtime, which was recently confirmed by AMC. When Disney sells licensing to their shows, there is sometimes a lesser-known version available that takes the script in the opposite direction by making it even shorter than the original film. These are known as Jr. productions. They are cheaper to license and easier to perform in a single act with no intermission. I was not aware that there was a Jr. version of The Little Mermaid until last weekend when I saw it performed at a local high school.

This version of the show uses a truncated script of the Broadway production that cuts anything that is not absolutely essential to the plot, including random lyrics from some of the most popular songs in the film. Coming in at just over an hour, the show includes three original songs from the Broadway play. It also contains all of the songs from the original film with just enough dialogue in between them to get the main points across. It was very different from the new show I saw on the Disney Wish, which was around the same length. Despite its shorter run time, The Little Mermaid Jr. accurately follows the changes that were made to the story for the Broadway script. That includes replacing the part where Ursula turns into Vanessa and seduces Eric with a singing contest in which other princesses try to match the voice Eric heard when he was rescued only to have him choose Ariel as the winner despite having no voice. This has always been a questionable decision since the Vanessa character had been such a staple of the original movie.

The high school production I saw was not exactly the best quality, which was surprising after seeing a fantastic production of Phantom of the Opera at the same school just a few months earlier, but it served as a good enough example of the changes that Disney made to this version of the script. Some of my favorite songs from the Broadway play were cut for time, including all of the original songs that were written for Ariel like "The World Above," "Beyond My Wildest Dreams," and "If Only." The Jr. script is pretty balanced by giving most of the characters one major song, which, in Ariel's case, was the classic "Part of Your World." Instead of using the fan favorite "Her Voice" for Eric like the Hollywood Bowl anniversary concert and 2019 Little Mermaid Live! shows did, this show went with "One Step Closer," in which he teaches Ariel how to dance. The probably chose this song for him to foreshadow how Ariel would win the singing contest by dancing for Eric, something that is unique to the Broadway version of the show. The other two songs that were carried over from the Broadway play were "She's in Love," a Motown number that gives Flounder a rare opportunity to sing along with Ariel's sisters, and "Human Stuff," which was performed by Scuttle. "Human Stuff" was actually cut from the version of the Broadway show that got licensed to local theaters leaving Scuttle only the song "Positoovity," which he sang at the beginning of the second act to give Ariel confidence after she turned into a human. This version of the show does the reverse.

Even though the production I saw had some technical errors and didn't do as much with the sets as they could have, I was impressed with the experience they provided for their audience members in the lobby. Just like the Princess Tea I attended at a different high school, the show began from the moment we walked in the door. Students from the theatre group who weren't in this show walked around in full costumes as princes and princesses from various Disney movies and greeted guests as they entered the school. Multiple photo spots were set up throughout the lobby with underwater backgrounds and blow-up clamshells, pearls, and mermaid tails. There were also bubbles hanging from the ceiling, tables with netting and coral centerpieces, and light-up mermaid wands and crowns being sold near the concession stand. The other performance of the show included a Q&A with the cast and a meet'n'greet session afterward. These little touches that make their audience feel welcome and immersed in Ariel's world make up for anything that the show was lacking with its short runtime.

I think the fact that the Broadway script can be performed in less than half the time of the original show without leaving out any important details really says something about why The Little Mermaid's Broadway run ended as quickly as it did. The Little Mermaid Jr. successfully balances the songs from the film and the play between its characters while focusing only on the scenes that are necessary to tell the story. It isn't exactly peak musical theatre, but it gets the job done. I think overall I prefer the show I saw on the Disney Wish because it added some interesting new details that didn't interfere with the original story and still included Vanessa in the plot. Regardless, if you weren't lucky enough to see the Broadway show in the short time that it ran, The Little Mermaid Jr. is a simple way to get the gist of it in a much shorter time span.


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