To honor the 30th anniversary of The Little Mermaid, Disney’s classic reimagining of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that does not end with the protagonist’s suicide, ABC promised audiences a nostalgic mixed-media live spectacular. Part glitzy musical production, part tribute to the animated film, this two-hour live celebratory event was touted as a revolutionary “hybrid format” meant to both capture the magic of the original and highlight the joy of new artistry.
But reader, this was no “hybrid format” — this was a classic bait-and-switch.
ABC marketing hyped The Little Mermaid Live! as a showcase featuring the talents of ingenue Auli’i Cravalho (Moana) and icon Queen Latifah (Hairspray). But as far as I can tell, most of the airtime was spent broadcasting the dialogue sequences (aka story) from the original film and sprinkling in a few semi-live songs from the soundtrack and its 2007 Broadway musical adaptation. Thus, audiences were deprived of any dramatic performances from the cast, treated instead to what ostensibly amounted to a concert that relied heavily on background video and brief celebrity cameos. It was a deflating experience.
ABC knew exactly how much you didn’t care about the boring animated parts, because onscreen text kept popping up to remind you how much time was left until another live performance was set to air. In other words, these countdowns told you how many more minutes you could screw around on social media before something interesting happened again. If anything, juxtaposing drawn-out film sequences against a dynamic stage production only emphasized how boggy the plotting of the original film appears three decades later.
The live performances, however, were so engaging it’s a shame most of this show was spent replaying the animated film. This type of presentation may work well for audience members watching live at the Hollywood Bowl, but for viewers at home, this format comes across as a blatant admission that staging The Little Mermaid in full is just too technically challenging a feat. Live TV musicals can invigorate us (NBC’s 2016 Hairspray Live!) or curse us (Fox’s 2019 Rent: Live), but rarely do they make us wonder what they can do that our DVD players cannot.
Performed on a proscenium outfitted with LED screens and a jutting curlicued platform, many of the musical sequences buzzed with candy-colored vigor. The show’s production designers invented clever lighting, puppetry, costuming and pyrotechnics to evoke an aquatic landscape: In some sequences, brightly hued jellyfish chandeliers wafted from the ceilings, and in others, in-person audience members flapped blue cloth to mimic ocean waves. Sweeping cameras captured actors, including Cravalho as Ariel, performing seamless aerial motions to imitate how the body flows through water. In these moments, the stage pulsated. And then, like clockwork, another lengthy return to the film would slash that valuable momentum. Watching the show became an inevitable sine wave of delight and boredom.
Cast standouts included Amber Riley (Glee) belting as a mermaid raconteuse in the opening sequence and reggae singer Shaggy having the time of his life as crab/narc Sebastian (in spite of a costume that invoked “Baggy latex catsuit for the relaxed BDSM-er”). While it was a bit difficult to hear John Stamos’ lyrics as murderous Chef Louis, his bonkers-giddy comedic timing during “Les Poissons” more than made up for not being able to understand his vocalization. (Was I the only one who imagined wide-eyed Lori Loughlins scurrying around in those giant crab suits?) The best moment of the evening, however, was Latifah’s performance of Ursula the Sea-Witch’s legendary klezmer burlesque “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” Latifah — Oscar-nominated for Chicago, where she played another brassy, avaricious sex pot — nailed her notes as well as Ursula’s inky growl.
Ariel, on the hand, was mostly lifeless: The mermaid’s iconic upward surge out of the water looked like she was just commanded into cobra pose by a martinet yoga instructor. (In all fairness to Cravalho, there’s not much to Ariel as a character and even less to her when you only have her songs to conjure her spirit). Somehow Prince Eric (Graham Phillips, The Good Wife) got two solo numbers, but honestly, if anyone in this story is actually meant to be quiet and look pretty, it’s the chiseled princeling.
Live-action remakes of Disney animations often end up as heavy-handed as the makeup pancaked on a 19th century brothel worker, but the dynamism of the staged sequences here gives me hope for the upcoming full-length theatrical The Little Mermaid, starring Halle Bailey. Live! may have been a watery bummer, but I still want to be part of that world.
Cast: Auli’i Cravalho, Queen Latifah, Shaggy, John Stamos, Graham Phillips, Amber Riley
Executive producers: Hamish Hamilton, Katy Mullan, David Jammy, Raj Kapoor, Ian Stewart, Richard Kraft
Premiered: Tuesday, Nov. 5, at 8 p.m. (ABC)