If there is one thing that Lexington Children's Theatre's latest production of The Little Mermaid is decidedly not, it's Disney.
In the program notes, director Larry Snipes is upfront about the potential artistic pitfalls of producing a play that, like Cinderella or Snow White, immediately conjures our collective imagination's specific version of the tale. In this case, we imagine a red-haired Ariel, surrounded by sweet and goofy sea-creature friends as she finds her voice and wins her prince.
That's not how it goes in Hans Christen Anderson's version of the tale, poignantly adapted for the stage by Mike Kenny.
Executed with understated elegance and emotionally haunting long after curtain, Snipes' vision of Anderson's fairy tale succeeds because of its fundamental differences from the Disney version, not in spite of them. For instance, the little mermaid trades her voice to become human — but in this version, the Sea Witch cuts her tongue out with a dagger and tells her that her prince will eventually marry another woman anyway.
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When the mermaid does become human, there are no romantic boat rides with singing lobsters, though she does get to go on some mute adventures with the prince. And her human legs never suit her — each step she takes feels like sharp blades digging into her feet and when she sneaks down by the sea to wash away the blood, she can sometimes hear, but not see, her mermaid sisters singing.
Another big difference between Kenny's adaptation, which is recommended for ages 4 and older, and Disney's tale is the lack of a literal mermaid character. Instead, two actors, Rosanna Hurt and Jim Short, bring the little mermaid's story to life as Flotsam and Jetsam, respectively. The two play fisherman pals who recount the little mermaid's story together, each taking turns delivering key roles. Short is terrific as co-storyteller; his portrayal of the Sea Witch is very scary. And Hurt's take on the little mermaid's character (as performed by Flotsam) is spirited and touching.
Perhaps the most unexpected and jarring difference is the ending, which is too beautiful and delicate to recreate in writing. Snipes, Hurt and Short deserve tremendous praise for creating one of the most haunting and inspiring moments of theater I've experienced in a long time. Looking around the theater, I was evidently not alone. Other audience members sat, like me, in a kind of shocked, teary disbelief, as if expecting the actors to keep on going until there was a different ending.
In just under an hour, Snipes and company lure us deeply into the realm of myth and the complex terrain of the psyche, exploring truths that are both larger than ourselves and difficult to process, as well as the brutal emotional realities of love and the painful and beautiful ramifications of its pursuit. Disney is fun, but there are some experiences that just cannot be replicated for DVD audiences, and this is one of them.