On point: Fans more “in the swim” than critics

The sharks are circling around the Ellie Caulkins Opera House – and my e-mail inbox.

"Disney apologist!" they cry, the most cutting barb one could ever launch at a critic.

Apparently I wasn't condemning enough in my review of "The Little Mermaid," Disney's new stage spectacle that's getting a sneak peek in Denver before bowing on Broadway in December.

The epithet-hurlers: theater people, mostly. Some who live here and have seen the show, others who live elsewhere and haven't – but hate the show nonetheless. They joined a chorus of reviewers from Variety and elsewhere who would have you believe the "Mermaid" creators have committed some kind of criminal act.

But those voices are being drowned out by those "Mermaid" fanatics who'd like to puncture me with Prince Eric's ship – for not loving the show enough.

I actually liked it but posited the show's sets and costume need work; and that the storytelling falls apart at the end. I also believe its most glaring weaknesses will be rectified by December. My bigger, lingering problem is that while "Mermaid" is the story of a girl learning to stand on her own two feet, it's loaded with troubling and contradictory messages for young girls.

But the general public is love, love, loving "The Little Mermaid." How much? Turns out this run in Denver will go down as the biggest and most successful tryout in Disney Theatricals history. Truth.

Every ticket made available to the public here will have been sold by the time the show closes Sept. 9, according to Disney vice president Jack Eldon. That's nearly 95,000 seats sold in 47 performances. Astonishing figures.

And those ticket-buyers are the only people whose opinions much matter when it comes to Disney on Broadway. Tepid critical response to "Beauty and the Beast," "Aida" and even "Mary Poppins" had no impact on ticket sales.

Critics were similarly unmoved by "Wicked," a might-as-well-be Disney phenom that caught fire only after 14-year-olds found something profound in it that the rest of us missed.

Everyone wants another "Lion King," an unparalleled staging that employed revolutionary theatrical techniques. But purists forget that the stated purpose here is to simply bring a beloved animated Disney source film to the stage. That's what the audience wants. If Disney is guilty of anything here, it's of unwisely rewriting the climax.

A friend attended "Mermaid" recently and actually was troubled to see a mother and young daughter reduced to tears. He wouldn't want his own daughter getting choked up by the message he was hearing: that you really have no voice until a man hears it.

I have a different take: I see a mother and daughter who just shared a profoundly moving experience, one they will remember for the rest of their lives, one the daughter will one day write into her mother's eulogy.

Their souls have been stirred and, as with a drug, they are going to want more. That means they will seek out more theater. And the more they see, the more, perhaps, they may demand from the theater they do see.

Nothing wrong with that.

Theater critic John Moore can be reached at 303-954-1056 or jmoore@denverpost.com.

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