One recently-opened Bay Area stage show takes place under the Sea, where fish creatures dwell, another takes place on the Sea, where dangerous men scheme and battle for buried gold. One show features fish on roller skates; the other presents pirates and parrots. Both have singing and dancing—though only one is a musical.
One is in Berkeley. One’s in Rohnert Park.
One is Disney’s ‘The little Mermaid.’ The other is a brand new adaptation of ‘Treasure Island.’
Both are well worth a voyage to the theater.
First, let’s talk about ‘Treasure Island.’
Writer-director Mary Zimmerman’s richly reimagined action adventure—adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s beloved novel—is visually inventive and surprisingly emotional.
And it rocks.
As presented at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, in Berkeley, the show employs a stunningly well-engineered stage that—during scenes where the characters take to the open sea—actually rocks, swinging back-and-forth from side to side like a pirate ship rolling on the ocean.
That is just one of many eye-popping delights that await, as director Zimmerman launches a wildly unexpected, subversively psychological adaptation that might skimp a bit on the sword-fighting and swashbuckling, but makes up for it with beauty, pathos and rich human comedy.
Now, there’s no doubt that Treasure Island is a good book, but it would be hard to make the case that it is a very deep book—despite the fathomless depths of fondness many, including me, still feel for it. It’s a great story, but not exactly packed with psychological insight.
That’s why it’s such a surprise that Zimmerman has so deftly managed to turn the tale into something so humanely perceptive and emotionally rewarding. Packed with poetic touches—including a an odd but effective bit of dreamy piratical ballet—this rollicking interpretation is stirring and fun, achingly lovely, frequently sweet, occasionally a bit weird, and a tad upsetting.
Which is to say that, for a story about ships and pirates, with a set that swings into the action, it’s practically perfect.
Meanwhile, in Spreckels Theater Company’s splashy new production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, colorful costumed fish on wheels appear to swim across the stage. Seagulls fly and mermaids frolic, huge waves splash and crash, octopus women grow to six times their normal size, while six-foot strands of seaweed bob and wiggle in time to the music, thanks to dancers dressed up in seaweed suits.
It is, in a word, dazzling.
But of all the special effects unfurled in Spreckels elaborate production, directed with charm and energy by Gene Abravaya, the most impressive is the strong-voiced, agile and energetic cast. Led by Julianne Thompson Bretan as the adventurous title character, Ariel, with memorable turns by Mary Gannon Graham as the villainous sea-witch Ursula and Fernando Sui as Flounder, Ariel’s BFF (that’s “best fish friend”), the show is made colorful and clever by the costumes and set pieces, but succeeds on an emotional level primarily due to the delightfully cartoonish, occasionally quite moving performances.
Despite some glaring script flaws, an over-stuffed score and a confusing, undercooked climax, this Mermaid still delivers a level of onstage dazzle-dazzle that is pretty much unmatched in ambition and spectacle by any other local stage musical in recent memory.
‘Treasure Island’ runs Tuesday–Sunday through June 17 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, www.berkeleyrep.org. ‘Disney’s The Little Mermaid’ runs through May 22 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, www.spreckelsonline.com.