By Lynn Venhaus

When the Muny teams up with visionary director John Tartaglia, they create a magical world, and it always takes us to a happy place.

Enamored by only a few chords of “The Little Mermaid” score’s breezy calypso music, the luscious blue green turquoise palette of scenic designer Ann Beyersdorfer’s dazzling seascape and video designer Katherine Freer’s vibrant underwater kingdom teeming with marine life, and we’re eager to dive into this glistening fairy tale fantasia.

With his track record of infusing shows with whimsy and wonder, one expects Tartaglia to achieve new heights for the Muny’s third presentation of Disney’s cherished musical – and wow does he.

Imaginatively staged and seamlessly incorporating all the wizardry available – including innovative use of puppetry from revered Puppet Kitchen International, with designs by Eric Wright, and stunning aerials by ZFX, Hans Christian Andersen’s fish-out-of-water romance enchants in exciting new ways.

If you took away the bells and whistles, this Douglas Wright book adaptation of the Dane’s 1837 short story would still tug on your heartstrings, because stripped down, it is ultimately about families giving each other the greatest gifts –roots and wings.

Rich Pisarkiewicz (left) and Michael Maliakel in the 2024 Muny production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

Headstrong Ariel has an insatiable wanderlust, as does Prince Eric, whose zest for adventure pulls him away from his birthright. They disobey to chart their own course, and that comes with risks. She rescues him from drowning, and that remarkable visualization involving flying apparatus is thrilling.

All Disney princes and princesses yearn – and these restless royals must triumph. (And Michael Maliakel knows about being a hero — he played “Aladdin” for three years on Broadway.) The handsome heir is bewitched by the mermaid’s beautiful voice, and the spunky teen falls hard for a forbidden but enticing human world.

With their appealing ardor, Savy Brown and Maliakel are adorable as the made-for-each-other pair. Both have lush voices, and they convey their longing through his fervent renditions of “Her Voice” and “One Step Closer” and her luxe delivery of the iconic “Part of Your World” plus the engaging opener “The World Above.”

The classic true love’s kiss trope is significant because it will break dastardly Ursula the Sea Witch’s curse, so that Ariel can keep her voice and become human. And there isn’t a more intoxicating love song than “Kiss the Girl,” especially with the moonlit romantic mood achieved in the second act.

Ever since lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken wrote the game-changing music for the 1989 animated film, generally regarded as the property that resuscitated Disney’s reputation and ushered in the studio’s creative renaissance of the 1990s, “The Little Mermaid” has endured as a beloved pop culture fixture.

Books, videos, merchandise, the stage musical in 2007, and a live-action remake film in 2023 continue to entertain fans around the world.

From left: Adam Fane, Nicole Parker and Kennedy Kanagawa in the 2024 Muny production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

The Muny presented this wildly popular Disney title in 2011 and 2017, and costume designer Robin L. McGee is back from the latter’s creative team seven years later to put a fresh spin on a wide range of colorful outfits.

In a pivotal scene, an iridescent seafoam green dress makes Ariel even more radiant, and in a sixth-time collaboration with Puppet Kitchen International, Ursula’s octopus tentacles (real guys inside) remain a marvel in motion.

Tartaglia has opted for the villain to be more cartoonish rather than menacing, and newcomer Nicole Parker is campy, wears garish makeup, and alternates between exaggerated cackling and screeching as the slinky wicked witch.

Gearing it towards a younger audience, the director made it less dark, although “Poor Unfortunate Souls” makes her intentions clear, and “Daddy’s Little Girl,” alongside her henchmen, oozes spite.

Her electric eel minions, Flotsam and Jetsam, are also softened. Kennedy Kanagawa and Adam Fane are nimble in their slithery headdresses and eerie in their numbers, especially “Sweet Child.”

The three standout comical characters — confidante fish Flounder, silly seagull Scuttle and skittish sidekick Sebastian the crab – ingratiated themselves quickly with the audience.

From left: Leia Rhiannon Yogi, Jen Cody and Savy Jackson in the 2024 Muny production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

Leia Rhiannon Yogi is a cheerful Flounder, demonstrating her dexterity with the bright-hued puppet, while the sublime Fergie L. Philippe, so memorable as Emmett in “Legally Blonde” two summers ago, steals every scene he is in as the lovable calypso-singing crustacean.

He joyously leads the vivacious super-sized spectacle, “Under the Sea,” complete with swirling sea creatures including jellyfish, swimming turtles and Pufferfish. The Oscar-winning Best Song is arguably the show’s best number on the gigantic stage.

Muny fan favorites Jen Cody, Ben Davis and Christopher Sieber each bring their own distinct interpretation to their integral supporting roles.

A limber comedienne, Cody does backflips and handsprings as firecracker Scuttle, mangling English and denoting her crisp comic timing. She blithely leads a rollicking “Positoovity” and “Positaggity.” She has previously delighted audiences as the grandma in “The Addams Family,” Elizabeth in “Young Frankenstein” and stripper Tessie Tura in “Gypsy,” among other amusing roles.

Natural leading man Davis, last seen in his virtuoso St. Louis Theater Circle Award-winning performance as “Sweeney Todd,” is an imposing regal – and buff – King Triton, who must put aside his prejudices and doubts for his daughter’s happiness.

He brings necessary gravitas to the role, although the glow-in-the-dark scepter seems cumbersome at times. His rich baritone is such a pleasure, and he imbues his song “If Only (Triton’s Lament)” with real emotional heft. The reprise with the quartet of Ariel, Eric, Sebastian and Triton is quite lovely.

Christopher Sieber in the 2024 Muny production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Photo by Emily Santel

Christopher Sieber, who was a terrific Daddy Warbucks in the charming “Annie” directed by Tartaglia in 2018, has fun being over-the-top as the fussy French Chef Louis in his signature number “Les Poissons.”

The actor has been nominated for the Tony Award twice, as the original Lord Farquaad in “Shrek the Musical” (Fun fact: Tartaglia was Pinocchio) and Sir Dennis Galahad in “Spamalot” (More fun facts: Ben Davis played Galahad in the 2013 Muny production, and both Sieber and Davis were in the Muny’s 2017 “Jesus Christ Superstar,” with Sieber as King Herod and Davis Pontius Pilate).

Versatile veteran actor Rich Pisarkiewicz gets an opportunity to shine in a role well-suited to his talents – Prince Eric’s loyal guardian Grimsby. He is in his 44th season at the Muny, and this is his 87th show.

Some of the creative team worked with Tartaglia on last year’s extraordinary “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast,” including McGee, Beyersdorfer, lighting designer Jason Lyons, wig designer Ashley Rae Callahan, sound designers John Shivers and David Patridge, and ebullient choreographer Patrick O’Neill. His movements reflect people moving as if in water.

Tartaglia’s background includes puppetry with Jim Henson on “Sesame Street,” and is back working on “Fraggle Rock” on Disney Plus these days. His artistry is obvious, and this joins his other unique Muny productions “Mary Poppins,” “Matilda,” “The Wizard of Oz,” and “Tarzan” in recent years as examples of his unmistakable playfulness and indomitable spirit. He kept the tempo lively and brisk.

Savy Jackson and Ben Davis in the 2024 Muny production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Photo by Phillip Hamer

Music Director Michael Horsley’s elegance is noteworthy too. The hummable tunes and featured personalities keep us interested, easily earning smiles on a summer night from lots of families in attendance.

The creative artists’ inspired flourishes refreshed this chestnut, with the most striking aspect the constantly moving aquatic tableau – Beyersdorfer’s neon-splashed set, Freer’s mesmerizing video, Lyons’ sumptuous illuminations, McGee’s striking looks, Wright’s original puppets, O’Neill’s dance steps and the belief that the whole team could produce the impossible.

Everyone involved brought the best parts of themselves to this project, and its splendor shines brightly.

The Muny presents “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” July 8 through July 16 nightly at 8:15 p.m. on the outdoor stage in Forest Park. The runtime is nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission. Tickets are available at, by calling MetroTix at (314) 534-1111 or in person at the Muny Box Office, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily.

Fergie L. Philippe and Jen Cody in the 2024 Muny production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.” Photo by Phillip Hamer
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