By Madeline Orton
From the first few bars of the overture at Paper Mill Playhouse’s new production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” familiar songs and characters make this revamped script instantly familiar.
“It’s a great, great piece about a young girl who feels kind of lost, out of place and about how she finds herself and true love, set against this background of incredible Alan Menken music,” said Mark S. Hoebee, producing artistic director for Paper Mill Playhouse.
Disney is no stranger to the stage. Having produced six Broadway shows adapted from films including “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” and most recently “Newsies,” Disney’s theatrical productions have become a mainstay of The Great White Way.
Running only 685 performances and 50 previews — and panned by critics — the 2008 Broadway production of “The Little Mermaid” was a stark contrast to “The Lion King,” now in its 16th year.
“What I think it lacked for me was the heart of the story, the essence of the story,” explained Glenn Casale, director of Paper Mill’s production of “The Little Mermaid.” “So I went back and tried to make it simpler… Instead of roller skates, which they did on Broadway, I used flying, which I did with Peter Pan, to simulate swimming.”
Alan Menken — Oscar-winning composer best known for writing the scores to Disney films like “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” — is pleased with the revisions that have been made to the show.
“We had a long road to Broadway,” shared Menken. “Then a hiatus and there was some re-thinking, and then it opened in Europe… And I just came back from Tokyo where it opened there.”
Coming off of “Newsies” well-received 2011 out-of-town tryout at Paper Mill Playhouse and continued success on Broadway, Disney has given Paper Mill exclusive rights to co-produce a revamped version of “The Little Mermaid” with a small handful of other theaters.
“The project was borne out of the relationship between Paper Mill and Disney,” said Hoebee. “Disney granted us the rights to the title and then Kansas City and Pittsburgh expressed interest in it and they were brought in as partners on it.”
While Disney is not a producer on the project as it was with “Newsies,” new-found success with the show’s revised script and score would potentially offer Disney better opportunity to license the show to theaters across the country.
“A lot of changes we’ve made over the years have found their way into this production and this is the one we’re going to be sending out for licensing all over the country — all over the English-speaking world,” shared Menken.
Those involved are excited to see their production take flight.
“I’m really happy with the show,” Menken said. “I was really happy with the show on Broadway, but I think there are production aspects that we’ve improved since then.”
Jessica Grové, who plays Ariel in the production, is excited about the final product as well. “I think I’m most excited about the flying that simulates the swimming. It’s really quite magical and it makes the whole audience feel like they’re under the sea with us.”
“The Little Mermaid” runs through June 30 at Paper Mill Playhouse.
Major funding for NJ Arts is provided by The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the F.M. Kirby Foundation.