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Review: ‘Little Mermaid’ at Broward Center is Slow Burn’s gift for the holidays

Melanie Fernandez is Ariel in "Disney's The Little Mermaid," presented by Slow Burn Theatre Co. (Larry Marano/Courtesy)
Larry Marano/Courtesy
Melanie Fernandez is Ariel in “Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” presented by Slow Burn Theatre Co. (Larry Marano/Courtesy)
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Disney has become the master of crossover entertainment that appeals to both children and adults (especially those who can tap into their inner child). Proof positive of this is Slow Burn Theatre Co.’s highly entertaining, uber-energetic production of “Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” running through Dec. 31 at Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center for the Performing Arts.

Slow Burn has found that sweet spot, judging from the show’s opening-night audience, which included many well-behaved children as well as adults with and without young theatergoers. Appealing actors with strong voices and enthusiastic dancers never let a moment lapse during “The Little Mermaid,” directed with finesse by Slow Burn cofounder Patrick Fitzwater and featuring spirited choreography by Nicolette Quintero.

Fitzwater and company bring a fresh perspective to “The Little Mermaid,” putting their version in its own class, apart from the myriad movies based on this tale of a tail — the most famous being Disney’s 1989 animated version and its live-action film released earlier this year. The plot is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale that revolves around Ariel, the adventuresome, headstrong youngest daughter of King Triton of the sea world. The king has forbidden all merfolk from contact with people, because he believes a human killed his wife. But Ariel is fascinated by the human world above, collecting souvenirs that people have left behind in the ocean or that have fallen overboard. She falls in love with Prince Eric after saving his life following an accident at sea, and he in turn falls in love with her voice, which haunts him following his rescue.

Ariel desperately wants to be with Eric and makes a bargain with evil sea witch Ursula, who happens to be her banished aunt. Ariel will trade her beautiful voice for a pair of legs, with a condition. If Eric kisses her in three days, Ariel will be able to live happily ever after as a human. No kiss, no happily ever after with Eric, and Ariel will be a slave to Ursula, who will also own her soul.

Heather Jane Rolff is a true villain as Ursula, center, with her henchmen Flotsam (Nolan Montgomery) and Jetsam (Matthew Brightbill). (Larry Marano/Courtesy)
Larry Marano/Courtesy
Heather Jane Rolff is a true villain as Ursula, center, with her henchmen Flotsam (Nolan Montgomery) and Jetsam (Matthew Brightbill). (Larry Marano/Courtesy)

Eric is instantly smitten upon meeting Ariel again, but she cannot talk to prove she was his rescuer. Believing she’s the victim of a shipwreck, Eric takes her to his castle to recover. Eric’s de facto guardian, Grimsby, wants the prince to be married as he turns 21 years old and ascends the throne. Grimsby suggests a contest in which all the region’s princesses sing to Eric so he can find his love — a kind of fantasy version of “The Masked Singer.” Without a voice, Ariel relies on her exuberance, with help from friends including Flounder the fish, Scuttle the seagull, and Sebastian the crab.

Slow Burn has netted solid leads to swim in “The Little Mermaid” sea. Sweet-voiced Melanie Fernandez as Ariel capably carries the musical with her likable personality, expressive face and song stylings, both in ensemble numbers and in her solos including “The World Above,” “Part of Your World” and “If Only (Ariel’s Lament).”

Two-time Carbonell nominee Nate Promkul makes a striking royal turn as Prince Eric, depicting the future king as a guileless, down-to-earth young man not yet sure if he has it in him to lead a country. Promkul has been showcasing his talents in recent roles such as Anthony Hope in “Sweeney Todd” and Gabe in “Next to Normal.” “The Little Mermaid” gives him another chance to show his range.

Wilkie Ferguson’s strong voice and commanding presence show the mettle of a true leader as King Triton, whose hatred of humans is understandable and whose love for his daughters is genuine. A parent isn’t supposed to have favorites, but he clearly dotes more on Ariel among his seven daughters. Ferguson, who doubles as music director of “The Little Mermaid,” has been on Broadway in “Porgy and Bess,” “Motown The Musical” and “Wonderland.”

Heather Jane Rolff is a true villain — you’ll want to gleefully boo her — as Ursula, an aunt no one ever wants to be related to. She is aided by her two menacing henchmen, Flotsam (Nolan Montgomery) and Jetsam (Matthew Brightbill), both of whom nail their parts.

From left, Kyle Kemph as Flounder the fish, Jesse Smith as Sebastian the crab, Wilkie Ferguson as King Triton and Melanie Fernandez as Ariel in "Disney's The Little Mermaid," playing at the Broward Center through Dec. 31. (Larry Marano/Courtesy)
Larry Marano/Courtesy
From left, Kyle Kemph as Flounder the fish, Jesse Smith as Sebastian the crab, Wilkie Ferguson as King Triton and Melanie Fernandez as Ariel in “Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” playing at the Broward Center through Dec. 31. (Larry Marano/Courtesy)

Ariel couldn’t ask for better friends than Flounder (Kyle Kemph), Scuttle (Rodney Holmes) and Sebastian (a scene-stealing Jesse Smith). Each keeps the plot churning with waves of humor and verve, as does Michael Materdomini as Grimsby.

Fitzwater also has assembled a talented ensemble pool, especially the young women who portray King Triton’s other daughters, led by dance captain Emily Tarallo with Ashley Rubin, Casey Sacco, Celia Hinds, Kristi Rose Mills and Lauren Maria Abraham.

Shells, nets and barnacles effectively set the “under the sea” scenes that morph into Prince Eric’s castle and ship. Projections of the ship, castle and ocean enhance a sense of place, as do the costumes, under Rick Peña’s supervision, and especially the innovative lighting design by Clifford Spulock. Adding to the production values are the strobe lights, bubbles (which several children tried to catch) and the occasional flying actor. A seagull needs to fly sometimes. But Slow Burn should dial back a bit on the haze that sometimes was so heavy it obscured the actors.

“The Little Mermaid” is Slow Burn’s gift for the holidays. Check your inner child to enjoy this bauble.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: “Disney’s The Little Mermaid,” presented by Slow Burn Theatre Co.

WHEN: Through Dec. 31

WHERE: Amaturo Theater in Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale

COST: Tickets start at $54

INFORMATION: 954-462-0222; or

A version of this review was published in .

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