Sara Bareilles Makes for a Big 'Little Mermaid': 13 Hollywood Bowl Takeaways

Sara Bareilles and Rebel Wilson perform 'The Little Mermaid' at the Hollywood Bowl on June 4, 2016. 

In the same season that Sara Bareilles gave us a singing Waitress on Broadway, she also triumphed in a theatrical context on the other side of the country by singing the role of Ariel in a concert/film production of The Little Mermaid at the Hollywood Bowl. She didn’t go full-on Ariel for the role: no Bette Midler-style tail and wheelchair for her, and only the bottom half of Bareilles’ locks were dyed (or extended) crimson. But Bareilles is now fully and deservedly part of their world — the musical theater world — as both a writer and singer after this bicoastal one-two punch.

Darren Criss, Sara Bareilles & John Stamos Sing 'Under the Sea' in 'Little Mermaid' Rehearsal Clip

She didn’t provide the only star (or starfish) power on the bill: Rebel Wilson camped it up as Ursula, Darren Criss got suave as Prince Eric and John Stamos literally twirled his mustache in a two-minute cameo as a seafood-thirsty cook. Fashion hero of the show, as well as its arguable scene-stealer? That would be Tituss Burgess (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), whose adroit mugging as crabby Sebastian — a role he perfected in a Broadway adaptation of the animated film — was nearly overshadowed by his blinding red pants and shoes.

The three-night engagement continues Monday at the Bowl, albeit with original Ariel voice artist Jodi Benson stepping in for Bareilles, who had committed to a Tonys function before the final date was added. Here are a dozen takeaways from Bareilles’ opening nights as an amphibian headliner in the flawlessly executed show:

Sara Bareilles and Rebel Wilson can both get through a family-friendly show without dropping any of their trademark F-bombs after all. Of course, they didn’t have a lot of leeway for extemporaneous remarks, singing as their animated counterparts hovered on screens while a 71-piece orchestra kept busy reanimating Alan Menken’s score. However, Wilson did pay just a little bit more attention to adjusting her bosom than the animated version of her character ever did on screen.

Sara Bareilles really is like some kind of fairy-tale princess this year. The singer/songwriter will probably never have more of a Disney-esque dream-come-true year than 2016, now that she’s proven herself equally masterly as just a writer — with Waitress, in which she does not appear – or, here, sheer vocal interpreter. Bareilles has never played the naïf in her own work the way she had to as Ariel, but you could certainly hear how the soaring yearning of “Part of Your World,” from a movie released when she was 9, made its way into her own craft. Few fans would want her to take years off from making her own albums, but is it too much to hope that with chops like these, she might step into Waitress — or, heck, any other show — for a little while herself?

Jodi Benson may still be a bigger star among Disneymaniacs than Sara Bareilles. When a third show was added with Benson replacing Bareilles in the lead role, it didn’t immediately sell out the way the first two did, which might lead you to believe a behind-the-scenes vocal artist isn’t quite as much of a draw as a pop star. But that might be a mistaken assumption, judging from the roar Benson got when she did her own surprise rendition of “Part of Your World” after the movie credits rolled and climactic fireworks ended. You never get over your first Ariel.

Rebel Wilson has some decent musical theater chops. The 1989 animators based the character of the plus-sized, cleavage-baring, gravelly-voiced sea witch on the gender-fluid Divine… who, sadly, even then was unavailable for the role. Although she might be just one notch down in lung power from most of the others on stage, Wilson acquitted herself just fine as the villainess, and would have to be seen as first in line to play Ursula on screen, if Disney does get to making a live-action version as they’re doing with Beauty and the Beast.

Darren Criss has some rock star (or folk-rock star) instincts. “I can’t play the flute,” said the Glee star, referring to Prince Eric, “but I can play the guitar…. If they did a pop arrangement, it would probably sound like this,” he added, in introducing “Her Voice,” the one number of the night that strayed from the purely orchestral arrangements of the film and Broadway versions. Criss also served as the emcee, briefly introducing the other cast members… as when he welcomed Tituss Burgess back onto the stage in Act 2 “to lead us in this evening’s slow jam,” aka “Kiss the Girl.”

It’s a good thing there was an expanded Broadway version to draw upon. For someone who’s supposed to have the awesomest voice ever, Ariel doesn’t do much singing in The Little Mermaid. Maybe that’s intuitive for a narrative that has her going mute for the second half of the story, but it’s still jarring to be reminded that in the movie, she’s given only one number — two, if you count the reprise of “Part of Your World.” In fact, the original film has only about 20 minutes’ worth of vocalizing all together, and several key characters, like Prince Eric and King Triton, don’t croon at all. So the Hollywood Bowl production fleshed the song score out by throwing in four of the additional 11 tunes Menken and new co-writer Glenn Slater added in 2007 for the Broadway production (including Criss’ “Her Voice”), throwing pencil sketches up on the big screens in lieu of non-existent movie scenes. The opening and closing reels of the movie remained song-free, however, with action climaxes still crowding out any 11 o’clock numbers.

Prince Eric — he's actually no catch, right? So, the clueless male hero of the story throws over Ariel to propose to Ursula-in-disguise, apparently within moments of meeting her, yet we’re still supposed to think he’s worthy of our heroine’s affections? But, we disgress…

Sometimes, intermission is the best place for an overture. Attention spans being what they are, audiences don’t always have patience for 10 minutes of introductory orchestral premonitions nowadays. This show wisely solved that by making the overture an entr’acte affair, and making sure no one was bored by entrusting the lead violinist duty to the charismatic Cirque du Soleil veteran Sandy Cameron, dressed like an aquarian wood sprite and bounding about the stage a la Lindsay Stirling.

Little girls made up a surprisingly minuscule percentage of the audience. With prime tickets topping out in the $150-350 range for the sold-out show, a lot of parents didn’t mind leaving their poor-unfortunate-soul kids home with the DVD and a sitter. Random tykes notwithstanding, if there was a prime demographic at the Bowl, it seemed to be pairs of women in their 20s and 30s, followed closely by gay men. (Ursula, whose characterization was inspired by Divine, does show up at No. 1 on at least one Internet list of top Disney gay icons.) On the shuttle bus, you could hear an adult female voice pleading, “Don’t step on my tentacles,” signaling someone who may or may not have been participating in the costume contest. But the gal we spotted wearing an ancient Little Mermaid shirt and a vintage Stetson hat like the ones Bareilles used to always wear on stage really captured the night’s crossover zeitgeist.

Alan Menken has pretty good breath control, for a songwriter. Alan Menken opened the show by accompanying himself on piano on a fairly breathless medley of 21 songs he’s co-written for the Disney corporation. (Well, 20, plus an introductory chorus of “Little Shop of Horrors,” title tune of the non-Disney musical that earned him and lyricist Howard Ashman the Mermaid gig.) Along with the expected snippets from Aladdin, Enchanted, Newsies, Tangled, et al., the eight-time Oscar winner also threw in a verse from the recently canceled ABC musical series Galavant, complete with the seemingly un-Disney-esque line “cojones out to here.” But Menken’s most impressive accomplishment wasn’t this medley, but the fact that his wall-to-wall instrumental score for the 1989 movie holds up so well as a live performance piece, even though it was his very film underscore.  

Howard Ashman is still missed. Enough said.

What’s the opposite of pescatarian? The lines were crazy-long at all the Bowl’s food spots... except, notably, the sushi concession. Due respect, or maybe just a fear of getting fingered as the one who accidentally ate Flounder?

This show has… what do you call ‘em? Oh, legs. Menken introduced the show as being part of the “premier engagement” of the concert version of The Little Mermaid, presumably meaning they’ll try to recreate the wild success of this run in other cities. If Bareilles isn’t available, it’s fun to imagine other singers who could assume the title role: Pink, for instance, could go from being an aerialist to an Ariel-ist. And Meghan Trainor could be the one to remind us that it’s all about that bass… Big Mouth Billy Bass.