If you're looking to experience joy this holiday season beyond what dancing sugar plums and reformed misers supply, look to Aurora's Paramount Theatre and its bright, beautiful production of "The Little Mermaid."
Last year, Paramount embraced the season with "A Christmas Story, The Musical." This year, the theater counterprogrammed and the decision paid off. Two weeks before previews began, with some performances already sold out, Paramount announced a one-week extension through Jan. 15.
"The Little Mermaid"★ ★ ★ ★
Location: 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, (630) 896-6666 or paramountaurora.com
Showtimes: 1:30 and 7 p.m. Wednesday; 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 1 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday through Jan. 15
Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes with intermission
Parking: $3 in the municipal parking garage at Stolp Avenue and Downer Place; limited street parking available
Rating: For all ages
That's good news for pint-size Ariel fans, some of whom attended Sunday's opening dressed like their favorite mermaid and clutching her doll facsimile. And it's good news for anyone who appreciates an old-fashioned musical with a hummable score and a happy ending.
Based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale and Disney's 1989 hit film, the effervescent musical tells the coming-of-age tale of Ariel, a plucky teenage mermaid fascinated by life on land, who falls in love with a human. So entranced is Ariel by the young man and his world, she makes a Faustian bargain with a sea witch to trade her voice for legs in an effort to win his love.
Doug Wright's book (which includes almost every aquatic-related pun imaginable), composer Alan Menken's sunny score (with its irresistible calypso tunes and soaring ballads), and Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater's lyrics make for a charming if somewhat formulaic musical. But what a winning formula it is.
Brilliantly conceived and creatively staged by director/choreographer Amber Mak, with music direction by Tom Vendafreddo, Paramount's revival sounds as good as it looks. And it looks gorgeous thanks to its stellar design -- including an array of personable puppets -- that pairs Jeffrey D. Kmiec's lush, dreamlike set with Mike Tutaj's watercolor-inspired projections and Jesse Klug's rich lighting.
Leading the first-rate ensemble is the endearing Kari Yancy as Ariel. A strong singer, Yancy projects the warmth and guilelessness of a classic Disney heroine. But her Ariel also possesses the resolve of a contemporary, independent young woman unafraid to challenge King Triton (a commanding Evan Tyrone Martin), her overly protective father unwilling to let his youngest daughter leave the reef (so to speak).
Devin DeSantis, a lovely singer, plays reluctant Prince Eric, the dashing object of Ariel's affection. Preferring seafaring to affairs of state, Eric rejects the life ordained for him. Like Yancy, DeSantis epitomizes a Disney hero, right down to the dark wavy hair falling artfully across his brow.
Like all fairy tale princesses, Ariel has an entourage of anthropomorphic creatures. Hers consist of a perky young fish named Flounder (Ricky Falbo, sharing the role with Murphy Byrne) and the well-meaning but misinformed seagull Scuttle (Michael Ehlers). The nattily dressed crab Sebastian (Jonathan Butler-Duplessis) serves as Ariel's de facto guardian. The charismatic Butler-Duplessis sets the audience swaying with his infectious "Under the Sea," a showstopping number that earns him a well-deserved bow.
Christina Hall plays the superbly villainous Ursula. An embittered octopus determined to oust her brother Triton and take over his underwater kingdom, Ursula has the assistance of henchmen Flotsam (Adam Fane) and Jetsam (John Adam Keating), a sinister pair of eels.
Also deserving mention are the members of the robust female chorus, playing Ariel's six snarky sisters, and George Keating, who plays Eric's tutor and friend as well as the prince's seafood-loving French chef, Louis.
Among the production's great joys are its puppets, delightful works of art designed by Jesse Mooney-Bullock and operated by the actors, whose seamless performances suggest seasoned puppeteers. Equally engaging are the aerial stunts Yancy's Ariel performs throughout the show, further evidence of Mak's inventive staging.
Yet Mak never sacrifices substance for style. There is an authenticity and innocence to these performances that makes "The Little Mermaid" a tale not just for the ages, but for all ages.