Disney fans were in for a massive smile-inducing and tear-jerking event at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl on Friday when a 71-piece orchestra and talented vocal line-up performed the music of The Little Mermaid live to picture at a concert screening.
Among the cast taking on the roles in the beloved 1989 animated film were Sara Bareilles as Ariel, Rebel Wilson as Ursula, Tituss Burgess as Sebastian, Darren Crissas Prince Eric, and John Stamos as Chef Louis.
In a post-Merida, post-Elsa world, Ariel’s tale of longing to leave her father’s home and adventure into another world still resonates with audiences. The ever-catchiness of the music does too. That was evident as the power of nostalgia and the promise of a solid cast packed the Hollywood Bowl at Friday night’s show. The 17,000-seat venue had sold out within three hours, and two more shows were added (for Saturday and Monday) to meet demand.
Among the Little Mermaid fans who flocked to the Bowl on Friday was actress Jennifer Finnigan (The Bold and the Beautiful, TNT’s Tyrant). For her, “This was my childhood,” she told me during intermission. “I’ve seen this movie around 250 times. I was 10 when this came out. And I’m a huge fan of Sara Bareilles. When she came out and sang 'Part of Your World,' I was sobbing like a 10-year-old.”
Though I saw plenty of kiddos in Ariel costumes and seashell barrettes and even Sebastian costumes, the crowd was overwhelmingly adult, and you could hear that in the film’s funny moments. No children’s giggles or amusing comments were really audible, at least where I was seated, during the show, but there was the delightful experience of being surrounded by the laughter of thousands of fellow kids-at-heart at all the little funny moments in the film, especially at the comedy supplied by Sebastian, Scuttle, and Flounder.
Wilson as Ursula was a hoot. Such spot-on casting. Her voice certainly has a different quality than the original Ursula (they changed the song’s key for Wilson’s performance), and, ultimately, "Poor Unfortunate Souls" does belong to Pat Carroll. But on Friday night, Wilson owned that song. She went full-saucy Ursula, with plenty of sassy looks at the crowd, waving them on to cheer her on more as she took the stage, shaking her hips throughout the musical number, all in a black and purple dress and towering blonde wig reminiscent of Ursula.
She even gave us a provocative shimmy at the point Ursula does.
Meanwhile, Bareilles — who had a clear, gorgeous voice for the mermaid princess — did not do the “Ariel thrust” at the big, emotional finish of the “Part of Your World” reprise — the concert’s creative director Richard Kraft told me ahead of rehearsals that he’d encourage the “Love Song” singer to do that thrust. Probably a better call that she didn’t. It would have been a silly mimicry of that animated moment where silly wouldn’t have felt as right as it did with comedienne Wilson’s musical number. Instead, at the stirring finale of that reprise, Bareilles slowly raised her arms into the air, more reminiscent of the moment human-again Ariel steps out of the sea to greet Eric at the end of the film.
Music was the star of this show: While other live-to-picture concert screenings I’ve attended (including Back to the Future and E.T. — read our coverage here and here) have had a mix relatively close to that of the experience of seeing the film in a movie theater, the orchestra was particularly prominent at Friday’s show, making the details of Alan Menken’s every flourish all the more noticeable. The dialogue track (the live cast sang but didn’t speak their parts) was totally audible mixed with the orchestra, but sound effects were barely distinguishable. (Except for that crack of thunder at the start of the storm — that was loud and clear.)
Some moments that are usually punctuated by the meticulously crafted foley instead got their own cool visual accent — when Scuttle is whacking Sebastian against the dock to nail home the message that Ursula is marrying Eric, each thwack of the crab hitting the wood dock was in time with the bows of the string section being pulled across their instruments in the orchestra below the big screen.
The show was, as far as Kraft is aware, the second time a movie musical has been performed synced to picture with live singing (the first was Kraft’s Nightmare Before Christmas last October, which he produced with his agency firm partner Laura Engel). Part of the ostensible appeal of the event was hearing the characters of Little Mermaid with the live voices of today’s stars singing these iconic songs. But during the songs, I found my eyes drawn more to the stage and to the big screen displaying the featured singer than to the smaller screens off to the side displaying the movie. (During moments of the film other than songs, the film was projected on the big main screen, though.)
The performers were so dynamic, from Criss’ passion to Bareilles’ sweet, heartfelt performance to Burgess looking like he’s about to burst with utter joy. At times the cast and the 13-person choir even delivered some dance moves, so I tended to keep my eyes on the singers. But when I did glance at the screens displaying the film, it was fun to see Sebastian with Burgess’ voice or Ariel with Bareilles’. And from what I saw, it was, impressively, largely in sync, with the exception of a couple spoken moments in the middle of songs, which are tricky to time up properly.
A major highlight: John Stamos’ Chef Louis. This guy was clearly having a blast. He’s a huge Disney fan — as Kraft told me, the Full House alum has gone head-to-head with Kraft vying for the same Disney memorabilia at auctions. At the Bowl, Stamos stepped out with a huge fake mustache and a black beret. He went for it with “Les Poissons” — heeheehee-hawhawhaws and all.
Then, when the song morphs into Chef Louis’ slapstick-tastic chase of Sebastian set to Offenbach’s “Galop Infernal” can-can, Stamos took Michael Kosarin’s spot at the conductor’s podium and leapt into hilarious, frenetic conducting of the orchestra — with a wooden spoon as his baton. Before taking Kosarin’s place, he handed his phone to the conductor, so a prime-spot video of this moment is bound to his Stamos’ social accounts soon. When the can-can winded down, Kosarin playfully tapped Stamos off the shoulder and waved him off the podium.
• Alan Menken’s opening act: Disney fans at the show got the very cool experience of witnessing the composer of so, so many beloved House of Mouse songs perform several of his tunes — just him and a microphone and a piano under a spotlight on the Hollywood Bowl stage. The prolific musician sang parts of a bunch of his songs, from Little Shop of Horrors to Tangled and Galavant, in the medley. He even sang his “Star Spangled Man” from Captain America: The First Avenger. I was a bit perturbed by how many people were still chatting in the audience while this Disney icon was performing, but, hey, that’s how it goes with opening acts before the lights dim. While Menken’s been blessed with exquisite music-writing skills, he’s not a singer of the caliber of the men who have sung his songs like Zachary Levi and Richard White, but he delivered his songs with a lot of heart, and it was so cool to hear 20 minutes of how his songs sounded on the demo tapes he first gave to the producers of these films. Among the songs he sang in the medley was “Gaston” from Beauty and the Beast — turns out, of all the voices in his films, LeFou’s is the one that sounded closest to his own on the Bowl’s stage. He also performed a snippet of Aladdin’s “Friend Like Me,” with that laughter lyric nothing like Robin Williams’ but with Menken’s own sweet flavor.
• 13-year-old Joshua Colley’s performance as Flounder: In the movie, Ariel’s fish buddy doesn’t sing, but in the Broadway musical he has a few moments to sing, the song “She’s in Love” among them. Colley (who played Gavroche in the Les Miserables Broadway revival) gave an adorable performance, complete with some fun dancing with the ladies in the choir. He even did a fishing rod “reeling it in” move with the six ladies whose hair was pulled back in an assortment of starfish and other sea-themed accessories. Kraft had told the kid that he could have the part if he promised his voice wouldn’t change before the show, and he made good on his promise.
• Another song from the Broadway musical added to the show was “If Only (Quartet).” It was actually one of the more moving songs in the show, probably because we got finally to see four of the stars onstage singing together. (The only prior moment a lead singer had shared the stage with another in the show was when Bareilles joined Wilson for the ahh ahh ahhhh that would be captured in Ursula’s shell necklace.) But also because this is a beautiful song, capturing each character’s longings.
• Sebastian’s entrance: In the film, at Sebastian’s concert, King Triton’s enters to epic full-orchestra fanfare. Then Sebastian’s entrance follows to the same music — played on a kazoo. At Friday’s show, we got that kazoo-led entrance too: Each woman in the choir was given a kazoo for that moment.
• Of note from my chat with Finnigan and Silverman: The Tyrant actress has her doubts about a live-action Little Mermaid movie: “I don’t know how I feel about that, unless it’s Sara Bareilles whose voice is so beautiful and matches her really well,” she said. But if the chance ever popped up for Finnigan herself to take on a Disney role, at an event like the Bowl’s or otherwise, her dream role would be the part of Ariel. Meanwhile, Silverman said he’d want to partake in a re-staging of Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
• For the festivities on Eric’s ship before the storm, the first violin stood up to play a lead fiddle part. When he sat down and the audience supplied him with some solid applause, he looked out at the crowd with a grin that looked a bit surprised and relieved.
• Tituss Burgess killed it as Sebastian — no surprise since he played the crab in the Little Mermaid Broadway show, and he’s since only upped his musical prowess with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s “Peeno Noir.” When Burgess first stepped out onstage for “Under the Sea,” he had the hugest smile on his face. It looked like he was about to burst with joy. The only time that huge smile on his face disappeared was in character during “Kiss the Girl” — toward the end of the song, he yelled a very exasperated just kiss the girl!!
• Darren Criss as Prince Eric: Damn, the girls went nuts for this. So much high-pitched screaming for this Glee alum. Of all the performers costumes that were an homage to their characters, Criss is the one who really went for it: White button-up top (with the top several buttons un-buttoned, to the delight of all those fangirls, I’m sure), blue jeans, black boots, and red makeshift belt. For the song from the Broadway show “Her Voice,” he said to the crowd, “I can’t play the flute, but I can play the guitar,” and he proceeded to to just that (Again, the fangirls went nuts. I don’t know how they were still upright.), channeling Sting in the song that had a bit of a Police-like quality in this show. Criss was also the show’s MC, announcing from offstage each singer — though for his own entrance, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen — oh, it’s me.”
• Jodi Benson’s unannounced appearance: After the credits had rolled (with an accompanying fireworks show), Bareilles introduced Benson, the original voice of Ariel in the film. After the two Ariels shared a warm hug, Benson, said, “God gave me the greatest gift, to be here tonight with you because of this role,” she said. She then sang “Part of Your World” — and she still sounds amazing. It was wild to see Benson, glowing at 54 (in a blue mermaid-cut dress of course!), and hear the voice actress go back and forth between putting on Ariel’s teen voice and pitching it up for the incredible soaring notes of her own beautiful soprano voice. When the crowd gave her a standing ovation, she was overcome with emotion, wiping away tears, saying, “One second!” as she collected herself before welcoming back out the show’s cast. Benson will be singing the part of Ariel in the show on Monday since Bareilles will be at a Tony nominee reception in New York then.
• The encore: After Benson’s performance, the whole singing cast came out for an encore of an ensemble portion of “Under the Sea,” complete with some gleeful dance moves. When they reached the lyric “hot crustacean band,” they all gestured to the 71 musicians behind them. Indeed, the orchestra was on fire (turns out things can burn in under the sea of the fish Bowl!), and with their live music, surrounded by fellow Disney enthusiasts is an utterly joy-inducing way to experience a Disney movie. I hope there's another opportunity for this kind of show with another Disney classic.
Banner Photo Credit: Disney