It's not easy to create an enchanted kingdom under the sea and transplant it onto a musical stage. But that's exactly what Pittsburgh CLO will do at the Benedum Center for "Disney's The Little Mermaid," which had a 685-performance run on Broadway after its premiere in January 2008. The musical, based on the 1989 film and one of Hans Christian Andersen's most beloved stories, will make its Pittsburgh debut Tuesday.
The new production features a revamped script, additional songs and a fresh interpretation of the musical. But fans of the classic animated Disney film need not worry: All of the familiar and favorite characters -- Ariel, Prince Eric, Scuttle, Flounder, Sebastian, King Triton and, of course, the diabolical Ursula -- will be there.
"It's the first time anyone's seen this version of 'The Little Mermaid.' It was kind of daunting to take this project, that's beloved, and now Disney is licensing this project that you'll see," said director Glenn Casale.
We all know the story of the young and beautiful mermaid Ariel who wishes to leave her home in the ocean and live in the world above. The main plot is still very true to the animated feature. "It's just more fleshed out," Mr. Casale said. "You really find out Ursula's backstory of what made her as mean as she is. You understand Ariel's relationship with her sisters, and you really go on a journey with this family that doesn't understand one daughter."
The moral of the story has been enhanced as well. "What I tried to do is make the show not about a girl who's giving up the kingdom and going against her father for a guy," the director said. "It's about a girl who really doesn't fit in with her family. It's about a father accepting his daughter for being different, which I think is a great message for today, rather than falling in love with a guy."
Mr. Casale, in addition to reworking the musical, spent a lot of time developing the onstage movement. He used his previous production of "Peter Pan" for inspiration and realized that using wires, rather than the wheeled footwear by Heelys that was used on Broadway, would better simulate underwater movements.
Jessica Grove (pronounced Grow-vay), who will reprise her role as Ariel from the show's West Coast premiere, said, "A lot of improvements have been made from the Broadway production. We're actually flying. It's really beautiful. It makes the audience feel like they're with you under the sea."
The storytelling between the two worlds is represented by static movement above ground and fluid movement under the sea. Mr. Casale noted that there is the movement of the constant current on the stage. He studied fish and other underwater creatures to see how they dart around and swim under water. Lighting, projections, backdrops and curvilinear sets help create the underwater world. Backdrops and hard sets that create the world above the water utilize angular shapes and look more like a storybook.
New songs by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater include: Ursula's "Daddy's Little Angel" and Prince Eric's version of "If Only." "Liz McCartney [Ursula] is really great at being evil. And it's that joyful evil. She's got a reason to be that evil: The new song tells you that she was the seventh of seven girls, all who were thinner and more attractive, and she killed them off one by one to become 'daddy's little angel.' That really gives her a great thing to play, and you understand more."
Familiar favorites from the Disney film remain, including "Part of Your World," "Kiss the Girl" and the Academy Award-winning best original song, "Under the Sea," composed by Mr. Menken along with his longtime collaborator the late Howard Ashman.
"One thing that's interesting is that we all love the movie," said Mr. Casale. "The difference, though, is that in the animated feature, if you look at it now, most is shot in close-up because of the budget. What you will see here is the fantasy and the size of a Broadway musical. It's big and it's fun. The whole two hours is eye candy. Jessica is wonderful, and you really follow her journey."
Ms. Grove said, "When I was little I would sing 'Part of Your World' in my living room and in my family's swimming pool and pretend to be Ariel. It's a very special experience to be that character and sing that song."
She added that children are "blown away" by the live spectacle. "They really believe it, and I think that's the magic of theater. You can go and see something that it feels that you're more a part of it than just watching it on your TV. This is a total Broadway-caliber production. It's top-notch."
This revamped "Little Mermaid" is a collaboration among Pittsburgh CLO, Paper Mill Playhouse and Kansas City Starlight. In addition to director Casale, the show has a new choreographer (John MacInnis), scenic designer (Kenneth Foy) and costume designers (Amy Clark and Mark Koss). The message, though, doesn't stray from the film that inspired the musical.
"I think the message is be true to who you are inside and follow that journey," Mr. Casale said. "Even though it's hard for Ariel, she tells everybody that 'I don't fit in here' and she knows she has to do something about it. It's told with such heart. It's a family story. Just go in and experience it, and you'll feel part of Ariel's world."
Katie Foglia: email@example.com or 412-263-4903. Twitter: @ktfogs.