The Disney musical comedy that reversed the studio's flagging fortunes in animation in 1989 is the latest to reach Broadway. Belle and her Beauty and the Beast friends spent eight of their 13 years in New York at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, which has been remade as a glamorous grotto for its $15 million take on Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. But Disney Theatrical Productions, under the stewardship of president Thomas Schumacher and technical direction of David Benken, has not simply swapped Belle's castle for Ariel's kingdom.

The bedrock elements of the film remain. Much of its story, of the mermaid Ariel's love for the dashing (and human) Prince Eric and the jeopardy this puts her and her finned, webbed, and feathered friends in, has been retained by book writer Doug Wright (Grey Gardens). The original score, including the standards “Part of Your World,” “Kiss the Girl,” and the Oscar-winning “Under the Sea,” has been augmented with new tunes. Ariel is winningly played by a charming debutante, Sierra Boggess, who is surrounded by experienced Broadway hands, including Sean Palmer (as Eric), Norm Lewis (as her father, King Triton), Tituss Burgess (her “crabby” sidekick, Sebastian), and the Tony-nominated tentacles of Sherie Rene Scott, a dirty rotten scoundrel indeed as the vampishly menacing Ursula.

Just as Julie Taymor brought her avant-garde sensibility to bear on the acclaimed Lion King, however, there is much to The Little Mermaid that is not business-as-usual Broadway. The director, Francesca Zambello, is best known for highbrow operas and theatre in Europe. Also dipping their toes in the waters of the Great White Way for the first time are two designers closely associated with her work, scenic designer George Tsypin and costume designer Tatiana Noginova. Belle's lighting designer, Natasha Katz (a Tony winner for Disney's Aida) and another Disney veteran, sound designer John H. Shivers, are also aboard, as is projection and video designer Sven Ortel, whose work appeared in last season's Deuce. All were obliged to work in different ways on the three-and-a-half year journey to bring the story from the screen to the stage, given Tsypin's unorthodox concepts and Zambello's dictum: “No wires, no water.”

The show unfolds on three planes: Sea level, where Prince Eric's ship sails; Ariel's undersea home, where much of the action is set; and the prince's palace, where Ariel trades her fins for feet (the performers playing sea creatures zip around on Heelys wheeled sneakers, “swimming” across the stage). These environments are constantly in motion, necessitating some of the most sophisticated automation yet seen on stage. That was one challenge. The other: Many of the multifunctional pieces are translucent. This includes two large columns that define the palaces above and below the sea and transform into baroque sea fan-like contraptions that bear performers aloft during musical numbers, as well as a large disc that serves as a surface and undersea sun (and more).

Tsypin has worked with translucent material for 20 years. “The closest I've worked with it on this level before was with a Metropolitan Opera production of The Magic Flute,” he says. “But we took it much further. Disney has amazing support regarding research, materials, and prototypes.”

“Translucence has tremendous opportunities for light, which is what interests me. In a way, the set doesn't exist until light causes it to materialize. But too much translucence and you can see backstage,” he laughs. “It's about finding the balance and then concealing the fact that these are fiberglass structures supported by steel with theatrical tricks to sustain the illusion of fantasy.”

In crafting his design, using translucent materials sourced from 3M, he set the film aside. “It's wonderful in its 2D way but didn't give me much to work with,” he says. “Ours is a three-dimensional world with its own language, delineated by movement and color — blue for underwater, a brilliant orange in the sunlight, a dark green for Ursula. As it happens, in the original Andersen story, Ariel lives in a glass palace under the waves, so the use of translucence was justified.”

Another inspiration was unlikelier on its face: “Bosch's painting The Garden of Earthly Delights,” he says. “It's the right mixture of the fantastic and the surreal. And already in the 16th century, he was using transparent spheres in his work, for a wild and futuristic look, more like we needed. A sun that becomes a chandelier, then a jellyfish, then an underwater sun that mirrors the one in the sky, is for me the joy of theatre. Putting a costumed character up there with a water plant was just not going to work.”

Tsypin thinks big, which put him at a disadvantage on the stage. “I was given the smallest theatre on Broadway,” he says. “From the seats, the stage doesn't look too small, but that's all there is to it. There's no offstage space at all. So, for practical reasons, as well as artistic ones, I had to create pieces that could do different things on stage, then collapse compactly and sit there until their next appearance. The sun and elements like Ursula's tentacles act much like decorative Chinese lanterns, which also influenced the design, in this regard. The pod that houses Ursula, a close collaboration between Tatiana and me, is right there in the wings, waiting to expand.”

The show, which opened January 10, tried out at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts' Ellie Caulkins Opera House last summer. Tsypin's rethinking of family-friendly material with a nontraditional set came in for criticism, there and on Broadway, but he is unapologetic. “Theatre is about metaphor and not about illustrating every single moment from the source, which is something audiences and critics are not always prepared for.” The period between premieres let him fine-tune the design and see that its automation was, literally, ship-shape.

Prince Eric's ship is built like a series of pendulums, which undulate as if on the sea and break apart during a shipwreck. Showman Fabricators achieved the multifaceted movement of this and other set pieces, which make rapid and seamless transitions during the show despite their size (the ship hull weighs 8,000lbs.). The firm paired with Toronto-based Niscon to automate the show with Niscon's Raynok Motion Control System.

“Quite a few scenic elements are characters in the show: the waves, the columns, and Ursula's tentacles, which pulsate in and out,” explains Showman president Bob Usdin. “Disney was looking for a creative automation solution, and as Niscon had the control system and Showman the mechanics, we decided to partner with them.”

The Raynok's “Wave Profile,” where the operator builds looping motion by programming two profiles and telling the software to repeat it either specifically or indefinitely, keeps the scenic elements moving throughout their environments fluidly and imperceptibly. “Some of these, during the big musical numbers, run 10 minutes at a time, where a cue typically runs 10 seconds,” Usdin says. When the show “surfaces,” the indefinite loop programmed is replaced with a command that flies the scenery up to its storage position. The wirelessly controlled columns, big enough to fit four performers, rotate around a closed loop track as their arm and sea fan accoutrements raise and lower the actors; the automated lighting towers that are on stage are programmed to let them pass, then return to their operating positions.

There are more than 400 cues (more than half of them auto-follows) on the fly and automation deck desks and over 80 axes of individual motion. “The two operators, Mike Shepp on the deck and Jeff Zink on the fly, are incredibly diligent and vigilant,” Usdin says. “There are very few moments in the show where they aren't operating a piece of machinery, even with the cues programmed in.” In a cross-collaborative effort, the system controls the automated handiwork of several companies; noteworthy contributions include Showman's sun and ship, Adirondack Scenic's décor and tentacles for Ursula's automated pod (whose core was built by Showman), Show Canada's columns (with Showman-built sea fans), and Paragon's boat décor.

Automating Tsypin's design was one matter; animating it with light and activity was another. Katz spearheaded the illumination-intensive design. “The conceptual undercurrent — it's funny how that kind of creeps in when you're talking about it — is that, whenever you're underwater, there's always a sense of movement from every moving light,” an ensemble that includes 70 Vari-Lite VL3500 Spots, 10 Martin MAC 2000 Performance Version II Spots, and 25 High End Systems DataFlash AF1000s, controlled off two PRG Virtuoso DX consoles. “All the scenery, like the waves, is only the color that each piece is lit. We follow the scenic movement constantly in the show so we can keep it lit as it moves. It's very complex programming.”

Regarding the translucency, Katz notes, “What we learned through the mockup process — George's studio was like an aquarium when I first met him — was that, besides the 3M material being so reflective, it looks different depending on where you're sitting in the theatre. If you're house-right, it looks greener; house-left, it might lean toward blue. That was daunting, until we realized it could be controlled and that it was an asset and not a liability.”

With little room overhead, the moving lights “do the heavy lifting,” Katz says. “It's pinpoint lighting, done scene-by-scene. The VL3500s do great water effects with their two rotating gobos right next to each other. City Theatrical's EFX wheels, which we also have a lot of, provide a more linear water than moving lights, which have a more circular feel to their water.”

Ortel, who had worked with Zambello before, was brought in to layer the design with underwater video and projections, which he approached with some trepidation. “No one had ever worked with these materials before; they're basically Perspex, sandwiched with various other dichroic materials that reflect light in unusual ways that are definitely not for projection. Fortunately, what can look horrible on the monitor looks great on stage. There was never any question about whether I could project through them,” he laughs.

Once Ortel established the viability of projection for Disney and his fellow designers, he set to work, and at Tsypin's instigation, shot actual underwater footage in the Caribbean on his Sony Z1 in HDV and composited the footage in Adobe After Effects CS3 “to see if that would work. But we decided to take a more illustrative approach to the footage.” He was then “blowing bubbles” to further sculpt the environments.

“There are 11 different planes that have to be in focus in one moment or the other, and a constant shifting of lineups going on, which we solved,” he says. “The projections are shapes that fit in with George's and Tatiana's designs: Kingly bubbles in Triton's court, a wiggly seaweed and thinner, more squiggly bubbles for Ursula's lair, and sparkly, pink bubbles for Ariel. Other projections refract light and lend a sense of mystery to the show. I hadn't fully finished a clip until I got to Denver, which shows the level of trust I was given.” Content was created at full HD resolution (1920×1080), and Ortel adds that the shapes used were hand drawn in Adobe Illustrator and then animated.

“Quiet, bright and small” Panasonic 10000 series projectors are used and run off an MA Lighting grandMA light triggered by the lighting console. “The Hippotizer playback units have useful effects for creating more organic movement and doing things on-the-fly and a strong keystoning feature for merging images on three projectors into one,” says Ortel. “In V.3, I can monitor exactly what the programmer is doing through a little interface, which makes working transparent and very quick; I can even interfere when I want to.”

The audio department was not spared the challenge of the scenic design. “In terms of sound, Tarzan, which I also designed, was very absorptive by virtue of the carpeting and vines on the walls,” Shivers says. “This one is so reflective, which didn't help in keeping the ambient noise contained on the stage. Regarding the equipment, it's gear I'm comfortable with, evolved from Tarzan: L-Acoustics dV-DOSC line arrays, which have a very transparent and natural sound, and a reliable and flexible Yamaha PM1D digital console.”

The costumes provided a special challenge for the sound department. “On a musical, it can be difficult to hide a microphone, as we need to get a fair amount of gain to blend with a large orchestra,” Shivers says. “Hats are detrimental; they give you a reflective surface that can wreak havoc on the sound of a mic placed up against it. Sebastian was interesting, in that he ended up on a boom mic, as his head is shaved, and there was no place to mount a microphone or a transmitter on his head and keep it somewhat out of sight. As he is featured in one of the biggest numbers in terms of sonic level and impact, ‘Under the Sea,’ it was a necessity to achieve good mic placement. With Francesca and Tatiana, I worked on solutions: Could the crab have whiskers, which would then allow us to color the boom red and make it part of the costume? In the end, we simply blended it into his skin color as best as we could.”

The designers feel they have achieved a “groundbreaking design” with The Little Mermaid, according to Katz. “It's all about venturing into the unknown. For kids, the kind of fantasy we're creating comes easily. For everyone else, we're hoping that the tide turns.”

The author blogs on entertainment at Between Productions, www.robertcashill.blogspot.com.

The Little Mermaid
CREDIT LIST

DESIGN TEAM

Set Designer: George Tsypin

Costume Designer: Tatiana Noginova

Lighting Designer: Natasha Katz

Sound Designer: John H. Shivers

Projection and Video Designer: Sven Ortel

VENDORS

Scenery: Showman Fabricators, Inc.; Show Canada Industries; Adirondack Studios, Inc; The Paragon Innovation Group, Inc.; Proof Productions

Scenery and rigging automation: Showman Fabricators, Inc., featuring the Raynok Motion Control System with a control system manufactured by Niscon

Lighting and projection equipment: PRG Lighting

Sound Equipment: Sound Associates Inc.

SCENIC STAFF

Associate Scenic Designer: Peter Eastman, Dennis Moyes

Scenic Design Assistants: Gaetane Bertol, Larry Brown, Kelly Hanson, Niki Hernandez-Adams, Nathan Heverin, Rachel Short Janocko, Jee an Jung, Mimi Lien, Frank McCullough, Amulfo Maldonado, Robert Pyzocha, Chisanto Uno

Sculptor: Arturs Virtmanis

LIGHTING STAFF

Associate Lighting Designer: Yael Lubetzky

Lighting Design Assistant: Craig Stelzenmuller

Automated Lighting Programmer: Aland Henderson

Automated Lighting Tracker: Joel Shier

Assistant to the Lighting Designer: Richard Swan

Moving Light Technician: Jesse Hancox

SOUND STAFF

Associate Sound Designer/Production Sound Engineer: David Patridge

Head Sound: George Huckins

Deck Sound: Scott Anderson

VIDEO AND PROJECTION STAFF

Projection Design Assistants: Peter Acken (programming), Katy Tucker (compositing)

Technician: Chris Kurz

LIGHTING EQUIPMENT

1 ETC Obsession II Dual Processor

2 PRG Virtuoso DX Control Consoles

5 ETC 96×2.4kW Sensor Rolling Dimmer Racks

10 City Theatrical WDS 15A Dimmers

70 Vari-Lite VL3500Q Spot Luminaires

20 Vari-Lite VL2000 Wash Luminaires

10 Martin Professional MAC 2000 Performance Version II Spot Luminaires

57 ETC Source Four 19° Ellipsoidal 550W

9 ETC Source Four 19° Ellipsoidal 575W

157 ETC Source Four 26° Ellipsoidal 550W

46 ETC Source Four 26° Ellipsoidal 575W

17 ETC Source Four 26° Ellipsoidal 750W

95 ETC Source Four 36° Ellipsoidal 550W

29 ETC Source Four 36° Ellipsoidal 575W

42 Altman Lighting PAR64 VNSP

22 Altman Lighting PAR64 NSP

20 MR16 Birdies

32 L&E New Style 8' four-circuit Mini-Strip EYF

26 Color Kinetics ColorBlaze 72 LED Striplight

8 Color Kinetics ColorBlaze 48 LED Striplight

2 Color Kinetics ColorBlast 12 LED Striplight

200 Wybron Coloram II 4" Scrollers

42 Wybron Coloram II 7.5" Scrollers

25 High End DataFlash AF1000 Xenon Strobes

60 City Theatrical EFX Plus2 Variable Speed 0-7 RPM

22 Rosco Variable Speed Double Gobo Rotator

4 Lycian Starklite II MSR Followspot

4 Look Solutions Orka Fog Generator

2 Look Solutions Viper NT Fog Generator

PROJECTION EQUIPMENT

1 Panasonic PT-DW10000 DLP Projector

2 Panasonic PT-D10000 DLP Projector

3 Green Hippo Hippotizer V3 HD Media Server

1 MA Lighting grandMA Console

1 MA Lighting grandMA light Console

SOUND EQUIPMENT

Yamaha PM1D Version 2 Digital Audio Mixing System

Meyer Sound Matrix3 LX-300 with:

1 36GB Wild Tracks Dual Drive

1 CueMixer RF-108 Control Surface

1 TC Electronics Reverb 6000 System

1 TC Electronics Reverb 4000

1 Eventide Eclipse 3

3 Klark-Teknik DN9344E Quad EQ

1 Yamaha 01V96 Digital Mixer c/w MY8-AE Card

1 Tascam CD-01U Pro CD Player

1 Apogee Big Ben Master Word Clock generator

3 Lucid GENx192 Word Clock Gen/Distro

40 Sennheiser SK5012 Transmitters

20 Sennheiser EM3532 Dual Receivers

3 Masque Sound AF16-X2 Antenna Distribution System

1 Masque Sound LM-36-MN RF Monitoring System

40 DPA 4061 Microphones

2 DPA 4066 Boom Microphones

System Processing

5 Dolby Lake LP4D12 processors

51 d&b E0 Loudspeakers

14 d&b D12 Amplifier

9 L-Acoustics 108P Loudspeakers

34 L-Acoustics dV-DOSC Loudspeakers

4 L-Acoustics dV-SUB Loudspeakers

3 L-Acoustics MTD12XT Loudspeakers

9 L-Acoustics MTD108a Loudspeakers

2 L-Acoustics LA4 Amplifier

18 Lab Gruppen fp6400 Amplifier

6 Lab Gruppen fp3400 Amplifier

7 Meyer Sound UPM-1P Loudspeakers

4 Meyer Sound 650P Loudspeakers

2 Aviom AN-16i Analogue Input Modules

3 Aviom A-16D Pro A-Net distribution

21 Aviom A-16II Mixers c/w 3' long ¼"

30 Sony MDR-7506 Headphones

8 Sennheiser HD25 Headphones

24 Genelec 8030A Active Monitor Speakers

1 Genelec 7060B Active Monitor Subwoofer Speaker

10 AKG C 414 B-XLS Microphones

2 AMT SP25B Microphones

2 Audix D6 Microphones

2 Beyerdynamic M88TG Microphones

8 Radial J48 DI Direct Boxes

6 BSS AR133 DI Direct Boxes

3 DPA SMK4061 Microphones

1 Earthworks M30 Microphone

6 Neumann KM140 Microphones

5 Neumann KM184 Microphones

6 Neumann U 89 i Microphones

6 Sennheiser MKH40 Microphones

3 Sennheiser MKE 2 P-C Microphones

8 Shure 514B Microphones

4 Shure SM-58s Microphones

5 Shure SM81 Microphones

6 Shure SM91 Microphones

10 Shure Beta 98D/S Microphones

5 Telex BTR-800 4 channel Full Duplex Radio-Communications Base Station

20 Telex TR-825 Dual Channel Beltpack

2 Masque Sound AF8-X Antenna Distribution

24 Motorola CP200 2-Way Radios

1 Riedel MFR-64 G2 Mainframe

4 Riedel C44 Interface

15 Riedel C3 Digital 2-Ch. Beltpack

14 Riedel RCP-1012E/0 Artist 1000 12-key LED panel

8 Riedel DCP-1016E/0 Artist 1000 1 6-key LED pan