In 1989, Disney introduced the world to a red-headed mermaid named Ariel and launched an animation Renaissance that produced a series of classics, including the Best Picture nominated "Beauty and the Beast" (1991). An entire generation grew up with the films, inspiring a new legion of Disney fans wishing for the Beast's library, Aladdin's magic carpet, and a chance to be part of Ariel's world. For us, these characters were not merely pencil and ink, but blueprints for our own hopes and dreams.
"The Little Mermaid" Live to Film Concert at the Hollywood Bowl brought these hopes and dreams to life in a new, interactive format. The concert was a presentation of the animated film accompanied by a live orchestra (the Hot Crustacean Band led by conductor Michael Kosarin in a Sebastian the Crab Red dinner jacket). While the orchestra provided the score throughout, the film would briefly pause at each song for celebrity and Broadway performers to take the stage to sing live, while the film played silently alongside them. The show worked in fun interactive moments throughout, including real fireworks to accompany those onscreen during the scene where Ariel first surfaces to see Prince Eric.
The presentation included several songs from the recent Broadway adaptation of "The Little Mermaid," allowing characters like Flounder, Prince Eric, and King Triton to express themselves through song. A great second-act quartet "If Only" highlighted the varied and rich vocal talents of the cast, while also emphasizing how naturally these characters translate to the Broadway medium.
It was the ultimate opportunity for fans to reconnect with their inner child and reflect on the still very resonant themes of Disney films and music (family, independence, love, self-reliance, etc.). Never more so than at the June 6th performance where many of the film's production team were on-hand and original Ariel Jodi Benson took over for Sara Bareilles, giving the Little Mermaid back her iconic voice. Benson, clad in an ocean-blue mermaid-style gown, slipped back into Ariel's fins seamlessly.
Her voice has slightly deepened and matured with time, and there were a few odd moments where she unsuccessfully aimed to replicate Ariel's more nasal teenage tones. But for those who know every note of "Part of Your World" from endless sing-along sessions, it was a sheer joy to hear her embody Ariel as the character swam along on a screen beside her. Her voice only strengthened as the evening continued, and her throaty, emotional take on the "Part of Your World (Reprise)" elevated this turning-point in the film as Ariel is beginning to actively articulate and seek out her desires.
Rivaling Benson's appearance was a special Monday night-only pre-show featuring other Disney legends Brad Kane and Susan Egan that ended with a duet of "A Whole New World." Egan and Kane were so winning and enthusiastic, the pre-show was almost more magical than the film presentation itself. They infused their stage time with wry lyric references and a deep, abiding affection for their films and Disney fans.
Kane provided the singing voice of Aladdin when he was only eighteen, an experience he said that filled him with "indescribable feelings." Twenty-four years later his voice still rings with the same boyish clarity and honesty. He kicked the night off with a rousing rendition of "One Jump Ahead" that placed audiences on the streets of Agrabah, and also contributed an affective reprise of the song. After all this time, you can still feel the throb of Aladdin's desire to prove his worth in Kane's voice.
Egan has an impressive Disney resume, including her turns as the voice of Megara in "Hercules" (1997) and originating the role of Belle in "Beauty and the Beast" on Broadway. Her set showcased these two roles with renditions of "I Won't Say I'm In Love" and a medley of Belle songs. Many Disney songs are about yearning for adventure and the chance to escape your circumstances, so beautifully expressed in the "Belle" reprise: "For once it might be grand, to have someone understand, I want so much more than they've got planned." Egan never merely sings these lyrics, she imbues them with a profundity that speaks to all of us who have ever felt underestimated. She capped her set with the title song from "Beauty and the Beast," reminding everyone in the house why this song won an Oscar.
The rest of the show included a host of delights and emotional highs. John Stamos and Rebel Wilson had audiences cracking up with their campy, over-the-top takes on Chef Louis and Ursula respectively. Since Darren Criss captured national attention as Blaine on "Glee," he has seem destined to portray a Disney prince. His swath of black hair, ineffable charm, and winning voice make him a perfect fit for Menken melodies and fairy-tales. His performance was one of the best of the night, bringing his own swoon-worthy pop arrangement of Eric's tune from the Broadway musical, "Her Voice," to the stage. With his guitar slung over his shoulder and his Eric costume replete with red sash and black boots, Criss made us believe that Prince Eric had simply walked off the screen to join us for the evening.
The two most stellar performers were Original Broadway Cast members Titus Burgess and Norm Lewis, reprising their roles as Sebastian and King Triton. Both had the strongest voices of the night, making ample display of their Broadway chops. Burgess, in red pants and shoes, looked like he was having the time of his life and invited audiences along for the ride. Lewis, meanwhile, has such a strong, resonant voice that he can bowl you over just standing still and delivering a song.
The night was capped off by a fireworks display over the credits that launched with Ariel and Prince Eric's final kiss, the Bowl shell alight with the rainbow King Triton creates onscreen. It was a moment of pure Disney magic – fireworks and romance set to an Alan Menken score. Benson concluded the proceedings with an encore of a song called "Disneyland" from the musical 'Smile.' Fatefully, Benson sang the song (with lyrics by Howard Ashman) in the show's original Broadway production, which led to her role as Ariel and a permanent place in the Disney family. It was a fitting capper to an evening of Disney showmanship and magical moments – the song describes a woman's desire to live in Disneyland and ends with the words "When I get to Disneyland, I'll stay." After a swimming evening like this one, audiences couldn't help but echo the sentiment.
"The Little Mermaid" ran through June 6 at the Hollywood Bowl (2301 Highland Ave., Los Angeles). For information on tickets and upcoming events, please visit http://hollywood.bowl-ca.com.