By Perry Tannenbaum
March 11, 2016, Charlotte, NC – Everything seems to be going so well at Charlotte Ballet as Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux stands on the verge of his final year as artistic director. During his tenure, Bonnefoux has seen his dance troupe establish residence in the trendiest theater in town on South Tryon Street while the company strengthened its educational program at its new administrative HQ on North Tryon Street. Two days before opening night of a nine-performance run of The Little Mermaid, choreographed by Mark Diamond, news broke that the McColl family – the BofA billionaires – had given the company $1 million to revamp Bonnefoux’s version of The Nutcracker, leaving little doubt about what the company’s most spectacular production will be for years to come. That announcement may have upstaged the new sets and costumes adorning the Diamond remount in the eyes of newspaper readers, but for the horde of little girls who helped fill Knight Theater to near capacity on opening night, the light in their eyes came from the new undersea wonders lavished upon The Little Mermaid.
There was definitely a fresh dazzle in the new costumes by Aimee J. Coleman, and their iridescence wasn’t confined to the rig Alessandra Ball James wore as the Mermaid before shedding her tailfins for legs. Three Little Mermaid Friends and a matching pair of Seahorses also gleamed, and there was a Day-Glo phosphorescence to the costumes of the Eels, the Undertow group, and the Fish. This new Little Mermaid signals that the extensive use of youthful dancers at Charlotte Ballet will no longer be confined to the annual Nutcracker extravaganza. No less than 20 kids are listed as Fish in the program, and they actually began the show with an extensive dance of their own, fluttering in formation and seemingly gliding across the stage in a manner that simulated black-light puppetry. Diamond had them admirably schooled to resemble a school of fish at multiple points in their dance.
Costumes that aren’t aglow are frequently marvels. Parents will no doubt need to dip into their program booklets to inform their princesses that Ryo Suzuki is an Anemone, but there’s no mistaking Raven Barkley for anything but a Sea Turtle. The sheer plenitude of sea creatures that have nothing to do with the story is a constant delight, not in the least Rylie Beck, making her way up the orchestra aisle at a snail’s pace and lurking onstage as the Hermit Crab – though she could easily be mistaken for a Mary Poppins’ old rucksack. As enchanting as all these costumes were, the new wow factor came from Michael Baumgarten’s lighting projections, functional when the Mermaid’s destined Prince gets thrown overboard during a storm but truly spectacular as we glide through undersea corals and canyons.
The low tech, held over from previous Mermaid productions of 2008 and 2011, mixes charmingly with the high tech as we watch the scene where the Prince is tossed by the tempest and the Mermaid rescues him. Three linen ribbons that stretched across the stage were the sea, and I’m sure that the sailboat James Kopecky fell out of wasn’t even half-built. Throughout the opening act, while the Mermaid remains a finned sea creature, Diamond solves the Mermaid’s mobility problem by having her transported in the sort of sledge the crippled Porgy might use, drawn by the same invisible hands that ripple the linen ocean from the wings. When Ball James rises from floor level, she remains horizontal thanks to the ministrations of her Friends and the rolling Undertow crew.
Although Addul Manzano makes a dashing appearance as the Sea King, Diamond hasn’t integrated him into the drama. Aside from the Mermaid, who occasionally appears on the verge of being heaved onto a dinner platter, it’s Jamie Dee Clifton who makes the biggest splash as the Sea Witch. Beyond pointing upwards, the Mermaid doesn’t articulate what she’s yearning for in the climactic encounter with the Witch, but the real exposition gap that Diamond leaves parents to fill in for their kids is the particulars of the bargain that the Mermaid agrees to when the Witch grants her the ability to walk on land. Clifton’s movements – and her saturnine costume – make it clear enough that goodwill and charity aren’t motivating the Witch as she grants the Mermaid’s wishes, and there’s a wondrous fairytale foreboding when Clifton hands Ball James the magic potion that effects her metamorphosis.
Thanks to the last of Baumgarten’s projections, the Mermaid awakens on a beauteous seashore with her newfound legs. Diamond doesn’t skip over the most absurd aspect of the Mermaid’s transformation, so we get an endearing, comical incongruity that no parent will be able to explain. After the Mermaid marvels at her feet and toes, she stands up tentatively on her legs like a newborn foal – and within seconds is dancing like the Princess Grace Fellowship winner that Ball James truly is. Even without the same undersea magic afterwards, Diamond constructs a second act that intertwines the Mermaid/Prince romance with a couple of strands of comedy and a couple of explosions of pure dance.
Along with two Charlotte Ballet II troupe members, namely Suzanna Duba and the hunched-over Ben Youngstone, Beck sheds her shell to become one of three Gossips. Singly, they snoop and scurry about in various corners and alleys of the set as the Mermaid glows, blushes, and plain shows off in response to all the attentions that the Prince lavishes upon her. Collectively, they engage in effusive sessions of head-bobbing, mouth-flapping gossip. But it’s a military trio, no more pertinent to the action than the Turtle before them, who provide the greatest comic delight. David Morse is pomposity itself as the General, head tilted back and sporting an imposing belly bulge. Yet he begins bickering lustily as soon as Josh Hall appears as the Admiral, topped with the appropriate seafaring hat. It becomes so heated – and of course, silly – that Amand Pulaj as the Secretary General is hard-pressed to keep them for pawing each other to death.
When he isn’t bickering, the General reviews a small brigade of Officers whose uniforms are colorfully unalike. But in her costumes for Suzuki, Juwan Alston, Iago Bresciani, Ben Ingel, Thel Moore, and Gregory Taylor; Coleman makes sure that each of the designs registers as unmistakably Russian, matching the spirited music by Glière that they dance to. Nearly all these soldier dances are solos where each of the men vies with the others in acrobatic éclat. But the Russian flavor only crystallizes what has gone before. There is some Debussy wedged into the score Diamond has chosen, but with the generous selections from Borodin’s chamber and orchestral works, the overall musical texture is decidedly Russian. When we adjourn from the Prince’s garden to the ballroom in his palace (the most impressive of Howard Jones’s new set designs), we could be at any Russian ballet, for Diamond’s dance stylings are as retro as the music.
During this formal cotillion, Sarah Hayes Harkins comes into full flower as the Prince’s Fiancée, a vision of cold elegant perfection as she dances with Kopecky, hardly deigning to notice her rival skulking in the corner in her damp rags. The tension between the supple, skittish, and vulnerable Ball James and the serene and imperious Harkins seems so ideal that I wondered how they could be switching roles for four of the nine performances. But they are merely the tip of a general shuffle of principals including Kopecky, Manzano, Hall, Morse, Clifton, and Chelsea Dumas. Diamond could easily shuffle a few more members from the main troupe and the satellite Ballet II dancers without marring the overall effect. The company that Bonnefoux has built is that strong.