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Splashy 'Little Mermaid' swims into Toby's Dinner Theatre

Howard County Times

“The Little Mermaid” is a tail, er, tale that makes for a really child-friendly show at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Even if they haven’t already seen the 1989 movie on which this 2008 Broadway musical is based, kids will respond to its mermaid protagonist, the storybook-handsome prince who falls in love with her, and an assortment of colorful sea creatures.

Somewhat older spectators are also likely to be charmed, especially those who grew up watching the Disney film and now want to introduce their own children to the show.

That definitely seemed to be the case during a recent performance in which all of that theatrical spectacle often seemed to mesmerize tiny viewers whose own holiday-appropriate outfits added to the festive sense that we were all watching a fashion show.

Although the stage version inevitably will fall short of achieving the special effects that are par for the course in a big-budget animated movie, the Toby’s production directed and choreographed by Mark Minnick has a talented cast wearing cleverly conceived costumes in order to embody human beings and sea creatures.

The costumes come from the long-established Baltimore company A.T. Jones & Sons, so you can rest assured that the mermaid tails are as convincing as one can reasonably expect under the fantasy circumstances. In case you’re wondering, the actors portraying mermaids do get to walk on their own two legs while sporting those fishy tails. This visual effect only takes, oh, two or three seconds to get accustomed to, and then it seems like perfectly normal anatomy.

Further helping immerse us in this marine environment are the atmospheric sets by David A. Hopkins, who also did the lighting. Whether scenes take place underwater, on a boat or on dry land, you feel like you are being taken on a fantastic voyage as the musical works its sometimes-meandering way towards a happy ending.

If the costumes, set design, lighting and other technical aspects of this production are consistently pleasing, the plot also offers plenty to enjoy. Where the musical's book by Doug Wright runs into occasional difficulty, though, is that the numerous characters and relationships aren't always established and developed as well as they might be.

Although we have a mostly solid understanding of how the mermaid protagonist, Ariel, relates to her father, aunt and sisters, Wrights scripted dialogue just skims the psychological surface of this family.

As is perhaps to be expected in a splashy musical, Ariel’s personality and her family relationships are conveyed with more emotional force in the music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater. It’s an agreeable score in which the characters explain themselves best through song. That point is brought out pungently by the music director of this production, Ross Scott Rawlings, who maintains a snappy pace.

The lead performers and supporting players alike give musically confident performances. As Ariel, Abby Middleton shines in “The World Above,” “Part of Your World,” “If Only” and other numbers. Middleton conveys Ariel’s curiosity about human life and one human being in particular.

As Prince Eric, the object of her romantic interest, Justin Calhoun has the requisite matinee idol features and vocally does well in numbers including “Her Voice.”

Those persuasive central performances ensure that the central romantic storyline is maintained despite a plot that has its share of admittedly enjoyable digressions.

One reason why those digressions are fun to watch is that the large cast gets to become other species clad in a variety of eye-catching costumes. They include Ariel’s father, King Triton (Russell Sunday), whose imposing bulk, beard and trident make him a persuasive underwater ruler; Ariel’s aunt, Ursula (Lynn Sharp Spears), who fills the wicked witch-type role that is such a staple in Disney stories; and Ariel’s sea creature friends, including the crab named Sebastian (DeCarlo Raspberry), whose cheerful, calypso-inflected personality is delightfully showcased in the show’s best-known musical number, “Under the Sea.”

“The Little Mermaid” runs through Jan. 13 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road in Columbia. Call 410-730-8311 or go to tobysdinnertheatre.com

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