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It is a summer of underwater hits, FINDING DORY is breaking box office records, and at the Berkeley Playhouse Disney's ultimate fish-out-of-water family musical, THE LITTLE MERMAID is delighting East Bay audiences. The BPH closes out their successful 2015 - 16 season with Disney’s classic MERMAID featuring a score by eight-time Academy Award winner Alan Menken, now underwater at the Julia Morgan stage through July 31. Berkeley Playhouse founding Artistic Director Elizabeth McKoy says: "Disney's The Little Mermaid, at its core, is the story of a curious young girl who feels different from those around her. Ariel has an incredible passion for knowledge and growth, and a need to experience the world beyond the ocean floor, where she ultimately finds her voice-literally! In a season that saw Berkeley Playhouse expand its own horizons with the presentation of our first original new work, Bridges: A New Musical, and our first non-musical play, To Kill A Mockingbird, like Ariel, we too have explored new territories in creating theatrical experiences for the entire family.”

The movie was released in 1989, and the musical premiered on Broadway in 2007 for a successful run that lasted over a year to sold out audiences. Directed by the creative Scottie Woodard, he brings a talented keen cast to craft THE LITTLE MERMAID, Disney's version of the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale. Music director Rachel Robinson holds down a wonderful seven member orchestra and keeps her cast in perfect pitch to fill the Julia Morgan Theatre. Staging a musical that takes place at least half of the time, underwater has to be a challenge. Woodard brings his 30 member talented ensemble impressive charm, color and comedy with this Disney musical. He provides energetic and spirited blocking, and brings the tender emotional connections of the characters. It is visually stunning, set designer Brian Watson captures that underwater kingdom feel in remarkable ways with deep blues, satin drapes, and a full sailing ship.

Ariel, the rebellious teen mermaid, played by the exceptional Andrea Dennison-Laufer, and her sidekick admirer, Flounder, played by the cute pixie Aubri No’eau Kahalekulu. Laufer gives Ariel both an innocent sweetness and a grand voice that makes the musical worth watching. Director Woodard cleverly cast a girl to play the little teen fish (usually played by a boy). Flounder as in the original film and Broadway story still flirts with her wonderful Ariel, truly a Berkeley theme, that worked so well in “She’s in Love” song by No’eau and the other mermaids. No’eau has a fantastic voice and is enduring in her role as the frisky, adorable Flounder.

Doug Wright's book follows Ariel who wants to walk on land to meet her prince and is given the opportunity to do so through a devilish deal made with the sea witch, Ursula, played so evilly wicked perfect by Jessica Coker. “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is funny and evil and Coker has that special likable evil to bring the old octopus alive. Her two clever and swank sidekick water snakes Jetsam and Flotsam are played by the slimy Brian Conway and Vida Mae Fernandez and are both an evil delight. Ariel is surrounded by six Mersisters, friends besides Flounder, there is Sebastian the calypso crab, the heart of the show, played by the brilliant Brendan Thomas who sings the classic “Under The Sea” with the cast, and it is a show stopper choreographed by Staci Arriaga. Thomas has a superb voice and a sizzling presence on stage.

Ariel's father, King Triton, is played by the dynamic Matt Davis who eventually yields to the independence of the strong-willed daughter he loves very much. Davis has a powerful voice in “If Only” and Prince Eric played by dapper William Thomas Hodgson, is the young mermaid's love interest. Thompson and Laufer make the perfect Disney couple as they search for each other. Thompson has a likable voice in his solo “Her Voice” he was a bit off key the night I saw him, but he is very charming as the young Prince. Local favorite, Jonathan Spencer, fusses charmingly as Eric’s tutor Grimsby, constantly reminding him that he has duties to live up to. Spencer is foolproof and always elegant on stage. Standouts of the evening are the lovable Brian Watson as the captivating, marvelous, tap-dancing seagull Scuttle who opens the second act with the show stopping “Positoovity” with a cast of gulls and other fish including the lovable Neal Pascua, Dominic Dagdagan, Matthew Haupert, Jeffery May Hyche and Cameron Adrian La Brie. The clever John Brown is in a brief but intensely memorable bit as a chef Louis preparing a table-full of seafood dishes as worried Sebastian waits to be boiled alive. Ensemble characters Pascua and Dagdagan who I have noted in many Bay Area productions are both stand outs and we need to see them in featured roles, the two are always impressive.

The cast of colorful mermaids and other sea creatures including the eager and colorful Kaylamay Paz Suarez, Krista Joy Serpa, Kristin Piescke, Miko Ison, Kat Ray, Jenny Angell, Nikki Nickerson as the Mersisters. Costumed in a rainbow of pride that was the subtext for a sweet theme in the underwater world Woodard created. The cute Wayward and Leeward are played by the delightful Malia Lee and Xathanael Zephaniah Amancio Todd. The Disney songs are all first rate: “Part of Your World,” “Daddy’s Little Girl” and “Kiss the Girl,” among others. These works by Menken and Ashman set the tone for the modern Disney girl power theme that has brightened so many of the new films and stage shows, only a hint that Dory will bring her own company to a Broadway stage soon. I also want to mention the youth ensemble that is an important part of most BPH events - they include the talented Jude Bennett, Sammie Kane, Pippa Kennedy, Leela Kiyawat, and Piper Sperske who swam the stage and kept us smiling during the whole two and half hour musical. There are other assorted sea creatures and land lubbers for musical and comedic support, a lot of the characters, a busy cast of 30 and many more songs.

The craft team for this underwater fun included lighting designer, Nick Kumamoto, who is creative and features a number of fun effects, deep blues and smokey excitement for Ursula's terrorizing second act antics. Sound designer, Brittany Mellerson, provides nicely varied and functional sounds for the show with many layers and of course many splashes. Daniel Hall’s set crew make all the fly scenes with the Prince and Ariel smooth and delight the kids in the audience. Debbie Shelley had to pull out all her props to create Ariel’s treasure trove of sparkly human trinkets she has collected. Arrianga’s dance numbers are fun and busy, and full of energy in "She's in Love" and "Under the Sea" not too campy and full of spirit. As the story ends Flounder has moved on and we see her holding hands with one of the Mersisters, adorable and that “Berkeley edge” you only get at the BPH. This production of THE LITTLE MERMAID features a talented cast, as well as fine direction, dances, and design. It's time to join the other fish in the sea, you have seen Finding Dory, now complete the summer with Ariel, Flounder, Sebastian and their friends.

The Berkeley Playhouse Presents


Book by Doug Wright, Music by Alan Menken,

Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater

Based on the Disney Film

Directed by Scottie Woodard, Music Director Rachel Robison,

Choreographer Staci Arriaga

Through: July 31, 2016

Julia Morgan Theater, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes; one intermission

Tickets: $23-$60; 510-845-8542,

Photo’s by BEN KRANTZ

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