Moonlight Stage Productions treats audiences of all ages to its most kids-and-grownups-friendly Summer Of 2017 treat, a crowd-pleasing, big-stage, cartoon-turned-live-action production of Disney The Little Mermaid

Like the 1989 animated feature that re-started it all for Disney back in 1989, The Little Mermaid’s 2007 Broadway adaptation recounts the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale of a sea sprite with dreams of walking on dry land (both literally and down the aisle with her human prince).

Disney Studios added their trademark brand of supporting characters including Sebastian the Jamaican crab, Flounder the blue-finned Flounder, Scuttle the word-inventing seagull, and Ursula the evil sea witch and her aquatic henchmen Flotsam and Jetsam, ocean creatures which the stage adaptation tweaks ever so slightly. (Flounder, for instance, now has an unrequited teen-nerd crush on Ariel.)

And since a movie running well under ninety minutes does not a full-length Broadway musical make, book writer Doug Wright has expanded (and occasionally revised) Ron Clements and John Musker’s screenplay, with Alan Menken and Glenn Slater adding a bunch of new songs to join the Menken/Howard Ashman classics “Part Of Your World,” “Under The Sea,” and “Kiss The Girl.”

The result of all this masterful tinkering may not follow the movie to the letter but fleshes out characters with a number of catchy new songs, all of the above performed quite splendidly down Vista way.

Director Steven Glaudini and his design team do a terrific job of making Moonlight audiences feel they’re watching an animated Disney movie come to life on stage, from Ariel’s fire-engine red tresses (kudos to wig designer Peter Herman for this for her cartoon dead-ringer do) to Music Theatre Of Wichita’s iridescent hand-drawn-looking sets by J. Branson and some breathtakingly imaginative MTW costumes (special snaps for designer Leon Dobkowski’s six spot-on Disney princesses) to Kathleen Kenna’s makeup design to Jean-Yves Tessier’s vibrant lighting, and most of all to Jonathan Infante’s animated projections that will convince you that Ariel, Sebastian, King Triton, and the rest are indeed “Under The Sea.”

Glaudini’s casting choices too could hardly be better, beginning with Chassey Bennett’s picture-perfect Ariel, not only the spitting image of the animated sea nymph we’ve come to know and love, but a bona fide star turn that wins hearts with its vivacity, charm, and Bennett’s angelic pipes.

David Burnham gives Prince Eric a boyishly handsome appeal in addition to his honed-on-Broadway tenor, Paul Oakley Stovall proves a towering presence as King Triton (both literally and figuratively), and an effervescent Cornelius Jones Jr. will have kids wishing they could take Sebastian home as their pet crab.

Luke Harvey Jacobs’s Scuttle squawks and delights with the best of them (and leads a chorus line of fabulous fowl in the evening’s most exuberant dance number, the get-up-and-tap “Positoovity”), Connor Marsh is imp-next-door adorable as Flounder, and Sarah Errington and Rae Henderson reinvent the roles of Flotsam and Jetsam to perfectly-synced creepy-crawly perfection.

And speaking of reinvention, inviting Randall Hickman (Moonlight’s Edna Turnblad) back as Ursula may be the summer season’s most inspired bit of casting, a big-bodied, booming-voiced sea demon who could eliminate any model-thin Drag Race competitor without batting a fake lash.

Nicole Athill (Arista), Caitlyn Calfas (Aquata), Jordan Stanberry (Atina), Joy Newbegin (Allana), Emma Nossal (Adella), and Susanna Vaughan (Andrina) are all six ebullient lovelies, Ryan Dietrich stops the show with Chef Louis’s très hilarious “Les Poissons,” and Douglas Davis gives Grimsby appropriately avuncular warmth.

Triple-threat ensemble members Danielle Airey, Scott Arnold, Athill, Drew Bradford, Jake Bradford, Calfas, Dietrich, Johnny Fletcher (Pilot), Fisher Kaake, Jordan Kimmel, Sebastian Montenegro, Koda Montoya, Newbegin, Nossal, Lisa Stone, Chad Takeda, Vaughan, and E.Y. Washington shine brightly whether on land or underwater, with a great big children’s ensemble* adding to the magic.

Musical director Elan McMahan not only elicits sensational vocals and equally ear-pleasing harmonies but conducts Moonlight’s Broadway-caliber pit orchestra, with sound designer Jim Zadai expertly amping and mixing vocals and instrumentals.

Moonlight’s Little Mermaid does fall short in one important (though far from deal-breaking) aspect, at least for those who’ve seen previous productions whose flying effects allowed Ariel, her ocean friends, and even evil Ursula to “swim” high above the stage (or in Skuttle’s case to take to the air in equally fine fettle).

Moonlight’s cast remain gravity-bound throughout, though thanks to choreographer Karl Warden, their undulating underwater “body rolls” do help convince us they are indeed under the sea.

Warden scores high marks for the vaudeville-ready tapping of “Positoovity” and the ‘60s girl-group moves of “She’s In Love,” but what ought to be the evening’s biggest cheer-earner, “Under The Sea,” doesn’t provide nearly the Vegas glitter, glitz, and plumes that it could, though Athill does spice it up with her aerial thrills and grace.

Brooke Baldwin is stage manager. Additional deserved program credits are shared by Renetta Lloyd (Ursula costume design), Carlotta Malone, Roslyn Lehman, and Lloyd (costume coordination and execution), and more.

Quibbles aside, Moonlight’s Mermaid more than merits its sky-high ticket demand, and the standing ovation that greets its cast at curtain calls.

Sandwiched between the more mature-appealing Aida and Sunset Boulevard, Disney Little Mermaid gives San Diego-adjacent families more than enough reason to spend an evening under Vista skies.

*Sean Barnett, Josh Bradford, Nate Carman, Duncan Carswell, Jacob Farry, Jack Gemmell, Marina Hall, Selah Howard, Eileen Parks, Piatt Pund, Cliare Scheper, Zoe Michelle Seare, Cassidy Smith, Delanie Tasto, Julia Van Skike, Ace Young

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Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista.

–Steven Stanley
July 23, 2017
Photos: Ken Jacques Photography

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