Inventive, engaging staging of ‘Mermaid’

The Walt Disney company has had extraordinary success in imprinting its adapted fairy tales on the collective American consciousness.

The marching dwarves in "Snow White" and the charming mice in "Cinderella" are reference points for generations of audiences who would find the original stories quaint and disturbing — if they even bothered to seek them out at all.

So it's a daunting challenge for director Eric Johnson and the Honolulu Theatre for Youth to overcome the feature cartoon by harkening back to the original.

Working with a story theater adaptation by Mike Kenny, much of what they do is inventive and highly theatrical.

Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," written in 1836, was a moralistic tale about a 15-year-old who loved unwisely, but perhaps gained an immortal soul.

One hundred and fifty years later, Disney made her a loveable redheaded tomboy named Ariel, surrounded her with chorusing crustaceans, and rewarded her with a handsome prince and a happily-ever-after ending. A Broadway version is expected later this year.

For this production, HTY has pitched the play for an audience aged 4 and above.

But don't send your littlest ones without some advance preparation.

Especially not if they already have the Disney DVD and a collection of action figures.

Designer H. Bart McGeehon creates an environmental experience, hanging the auditorium with nets and nautical paraphernalia and bathing everything in blue light for an undersea feeling.

Costumer Nara Cardenas incorporates wearable props. A metal fish trap becomes a bonnet and a length of netting becomes a shawl to instantly create a grandmother.

The Sea Witch is made from an upended rowboat bottom with a face opening and a pair of sweeping oars for arms.

Fluorescent fish swim through a sea of black light and a bubble machine adds submarine atmosphere.

There are only two actors. Herman Tesoro Jr. and Mary Wells are a couple of narrators named Jetsam and Flotsam, who create their own characters and take on all the roles in the story.

It's charming that Jetsam has a small crush on Flotsam and that she has to browbeat him into playing the disagreeable part of the Witch.

It's also remarkable that they change hats so quickly and seamlessly — even alternating as the same character without a hiccup.

In addition to playing the characters, they successfully pantomime some difficult action, including a disastrously sinking ship and the underwater rescue of the drowning prince.

The kids in the audience catch on to the inventiveness and are not fazed by the theatricality.

And, judging from the lack of squirming, they are engaged by the production.