I wasn't going to write anything about the TV show which aired this past Tuesday, but when talking to a friend who had a similar reaction to the show as I did when he watched it with his 13-year-old daughter, I figured I might as well dive in.
As I said, I absolutely loved the concept, And I thought they did an excellent job blending the film with the live actors. Other than that I thought it was dreadful.
I intended to watch the first 20 minutes live and then record the rest, watching some of the animated film but mainly fast-forwarding through it until they'd get to the live musical numbers. (I didn't feel compelled to watch the whole thing -- after all, as much as this was promoted as a Big Event, the event part was the live action. The rest was a 30-year-old cartoon that I've seen.) I ended up watching pretty much none of the animated movie and fast-forwarded through most of the song, stopping only to watch the few songs I was interested in. And they were pretty lousy to, to my taste.
I'll pause a moment to say that I'm absolutely sure that there are many people who LOVED it, just loooooved it. And Godspeed to them all. I thought it was dismal. And it turns out that so did my friend and his 13-year-old daughter. For largely the same reasons as me. And they too fast-forward through most of the whole thing. And I should add for full perspective that The Little Mermaid is my friend's favorite Disney animated movie musical of the studio's recent vintage, and his daughter, a 13-year-old girl, is a 13-year-old girl. So, it wasn't just me. And if you lose these two, who are about as core to your dream audience as you would want, you had some mis-step along the way.
First, what bugged me was that the live part of the show that they so-heavily promoted as "live!!" wasn't live. The actors were, and the dancing was, but the music and singing was all pre-recorded and dubbed. That's fine in general, except it's not when you're trying to convince people to watch because it's "live!!!"
Second, I thought the mix -- the balance between music level and singing level -- was awful. Except for the ballads, where the music is soft and low, the big production numbers were borderline unintelligible. One of those big numbers I was looking forward to, "Under the Sea," was so poorly mixed that I think I understood about 25% of it. For that matter, even though the quiet ballads were handled far better, even they weren't balanced nearly as well as they should have been. What's weird is that it's one thing to do a poor mix live, but when you've prerecorded everything in the studio beforehand, you have all the time to balance it right. In fairness, I thought I might have just had my own problem not hearing most of the lyrics well here -- and it might have been that -- but my friend had the same problem.
I thought the casting of the two leads were bizarrely bland even by Disney standards. Mind-numbing to me. And while I understand the roles themselves are a bit bland, it speaks volumes when cartoon characters have more spirit to them than their live-human counterparts. The cartoon Ariel at least is scrappy in being an iconoclast going against her father. And the Prince she's in love with in the animated film is adventurous enough for us to understand why Ariel went to the lengths pursuing him as she did. But the live-action actors (Auli'l Cravalho and Graham Philips were treacley sweet and lifeless. And Shaggy, the actor playing the wonderful, comic relief role of Sebastian the Crab, didn't seem to grasp the concept of comedy and having fun and instead basically preened and at times sleep-walked his way awkwardly through the part, a role for which the character should almost be bouncing off the walls. Queen Latifah had some life in her portrayal as the villain Ursala, and John Stamos threw himself into the goofy role of the French chef for his one song -- and even though it too was poorly balanced and hard to understand -- he clearly had great fun with it.
Related to this, I don't understand why all the characters were properly in costume -- except the actor playing Sebastian the Crab. I've seen the Sebastian costume that they used in the Broadway show, complete with googly eyes popping out on the top of his hat and crab legs dangling from his side. But for the TV production, they had the actor in a red vinyl jumpsuit that made him too cool for the room.
So, no, I didn't care for it. I hugely admired the concept, and they did a great job blending the two. And the production was adventurous, and pretty well-staged. But everything else? Thank goodness for the fast-forward button.
Okay, I figure I should post two video for the sake of comparison. This doesn't do everything justice because it's just one song, not the full two hours. But you should get an idea.
First, this is the TV version of the showstoppping "Under the Sea," screams and all. It's a lively, well-staged production, vibrantly colorful, and is even reasonably clear at the beginning, but then goes off the rails and ultimately is sort of lifeless for all the surface energy being thrown at you.
And this is how "Under the Sea" should be done, live version of the Broadway production. It features Tituss Burgess as Sebastian, who you would know if you watch the series, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. In full costume, throwing himself into the role and chewing up the scenery in the comic-relief role, even rollerskating (to give the impression of gliding through the water). And even in the very small appearance here by Sierra Bogguss as Ariel you can see a spark of a rebellious young girl willing to push back. Not every word is clear, but most are -- and keep in mind, first, this is on a Broadway stage, not mic'd for TV like the acoustics of a TV recording studio, and second, they are doing this actually live -- while dancing. And rollerskating. And even still, I think you'll get far more of the words.