There is nothing more delightful than to watch a family musical be completely upstaged by a drag queen and a sweet-singing shirtless hunk. Plumbum von Merman, the delectable Dan Chameroy playing the love child of Ethel Merman and kd lang in fish form (a daring joke that gives a taste of the subversive humour laced throughout) tucks, no pun intended, The Little Mermaid under her fin and sashays away with it. She only cedes the spotlight on occasion - even dominating the intermission via projections, much to the merch table vendors' dismay - and only not-by-choice when Marc Deivigne unleashes his gorgeous powerhouse voice or doffs his shirt to become the centre of focus for the finale and curtain call.
It's a remarkable feat considering the lavishness of the production values - the projections by Playground Studios are spectacular and create a hyper-realistic unrealistic world of wonder - and the talent-to-burn of the cast. The plot is a clever riff on the classic fairy tale (and the Disney film classic) updated and localized to include an eco-theme and a plan to "destroy" Toronto harbour, the home of the mermaids, with a mega-casino complex. Of course the storyline is only an excuse to string together musical numbers, gags and lots of crowd-pleasing hammy overacting.
Chilena Kennedy is big-voiced Little Mermaid with charm to spare; Jordan Clark is a slinky sexy henchperson whose dazzling dance moves thrill; and Eddie Glen (Sponge Bill Triangle Pants) and Reid Janisse (Carl the Clownfish) are valuable vaudevillian comedic hosts who keep the action moving. Ross Petty, out of drag as Ogopogo the sea monster/wizard, thrives on the booing he receives and is a deliciousy malevolent presence.
Incredible attention is paid to detail and the nuances in the performances - there is even, amongst the cast of thousands, a gay character with a dilemma - add to the fabric of what could otherwise be a string of jokes. A scene where the Little Mermaid has to mime her passion to the handsome prince with the help of Shelly the Shrimp (a feisty firecracker of a performance by Lana Carillo) achieves laughter and pathos in equal measure and is theatrical gold. And praise should be given to the hard-working, hyper-masculine, chorus boys who electrify as eels, transform from fish to frat-boys, and execute the athletic choreography with utter aplomb.
At one point Petty chastises the audience for not catching the local and political jokes. The senate scandal is bashed relentlessly but this year Rob Ford gets off lightly (except during the sponsor-plugging commercials - hilarious in their own right - that were obviously shot before the Fordian antics became tiresome and sad) compared to former years. Even the obvious Ferris wheel joke is passed over.
While pretending to have nothing on its mind but entertainment, The Little Mermaid has a subversive and welcome undertow. The audience is composed to a large extent of children who react with a combination of awe and excitement. That their early exposure to theatre includes a happy ending where the female protagonist not only wins the battle but also gets her man on her own terms, and a larger than life drag queen who is the lovable star (the few jokes that attempt to ridicule her fall flat, and have been minimized or are tossed away when they don't connect), is miraculous. Petty, more than once, refers to The Little Mermaid as the bargain basement substitute for those who can't afford Nutcracker tickets. I think the children, and the rest of the audience, would disagree.
The Little Mermaid runs until Sat, Jan 4 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge St. rosspetty.com