The Little Mermaid
★★★ (if you aren’t nostalgic for the movie) | ALL THE STARS!!! (if you are)
Through Sunday, Oct. 22
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham

“The Mermaid Affair.” That’s what my companion and I, just a pair of thirty-eighters, codenamed (with mock-mock embarrassment) our excursion to DPAC to bask in the stage musical of a Disney movie so deeply etched on our early-nineties formative years as to be virtually unreviewable. You know the story, right? Mermaid seeks love on land, trades voice to witch for legs, calamity and redemption ensue? Let’s swim on.

I can sort of rate the various facets, as an academic exercise: the stagecraft is usually great; the singing is uneven but often spectacular; the acting is uneven but sometimes spectacular; the script treads super shallow water; and the songs—oh my god, the songs. They wash away any stable critical apparatus in a tidal wave of tweenage nostalgia, though I’d swear the new songs don’t remotely stand up to the old. But, right or wrong, how could I feel otherwise?

The pop-up-book-style staging should be enchanting for anyone, though. Especially when the actors are suspended on harnesses, thrashing their tails behind a translucent scrim of rippling blues, the stage really turns into an aquarium. This very boxy sense of space usually suits the storybook feel wonderfully, though it does lead to the occasional flat scene. The shipwreck needs more lightning and motion; the swaying actors look more like they’re doing the wave than flailing on a sinking ship.

To flesh out the movie to Broadway length, this production adds predictable background on Ursula, Ariel’s parents, and her jealous sisters. But the writing is still the weakest aspect, as is acknowledged by its perpetrators, who throw in one of those meta-jokes contemporary scriptwriters seem to believe excuse all manner of rubbish. “Fish puns?” a mermaid asks, with feigned innocence. “Aren’t we better than that?” You can just imagine a writer looking at the script and saying, “Holy mackerel, this thing is wall-to-wall fish puns. We better throw a lampshade on that.” (Or a lamprey shade, I guess they’d say.)

The characters themselves delight. The eels (Frederick Hagreen and Brandon Roach) glide around on Heelys, perpendicular to the ground, balanced by long, stiff tails and covered in rope lights that spark when they high five. Scuttle (Jamie Torcellini) soars around making mincemeat of malapropisms. Ursula (Meredith Inglesby) effortlessly steals every scene she’s in, singing and emoting with the demonic range of Nicki Minaj, but with a Brahmin accent and a Bride of Frankenstein wig. She’s the actor who has the knife skills to make sushi from all that raw fish (wait for her long, delicious laugh after “squid pro quo”).

Flounder (Marco Ramos), a naif-punk riding a fluffy skateboard, looks so much like Rufio from Hook I kept waiting for him to yell “bangarang!” He most subtly handled the bouncing, undulating bodily motions the actors were tasked with to add to the underwater illusion. On the other hand, Ariel (Diana Huey), whose refulgent voice outshone her acting, kept flinging her arms about in wild pinwheels. While it was impressive that she could sing so lushly and beautifully while doing that, it wasn’t fooling anyone.

To me, the new songs were mainly fine but often off-register, abandoning the Caribbean undertones and strong thematic material of the original music, and occasionally fell completely flat. The handsome prince’s dull song about how dancing is communication without words seems to exist only to occasion a strangely barren romantic scene, and to make sense-ish of something in the endgame.

But the old songs—oh my god, the old songs. Try not to melt when a mincing, lolloping Sebastian (Melvin Abston) understandably loses his breath on “Under the Sea,” or when the mad French chef sings “Les Poissons” in a riotous comedy set piece, or when Ariel rises into the blue air ululating “Part of Your World.” Oops, you melted.