The world seems to have realized that there are pervasive problems in many traditional Disney movies. Countless articles have been written about the issues, from Ariel giving up her voice for a man, to a nonconsensual kiss being life-saving. Countless times I’ve heard a parent say they’re forbidding their daughter from watching princess movies. But The Little Mermaid Cocktail Experience, running now through March 6 over in Union Market, has taken note, and done something about it.
“For The Little Mermaid Cocktail Experience, we took the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale and put a modern, 21st-century spin on it,” said Fever Originals Artistic Director Anderson Lawfer. “It’s a new and exciting way to experience theater and bring a favorite fairytale to life.” Working from that baseline, the show follows Pearl the mermaid who, from the get-go, rejects the diminutive and makes herself known as “just Pearl.” Much as in the Disney movie, Pearl wants to experience life on land and walk among the humans, so she goes to the Sea Witch in search of a way to do just that. Of course, along the way she meets a shipwrecked sailor, with whom she has a whirlwind romance, but The Little Mermaid Cocktail Experience turns a simple love story on its head.
This much is evident as soon as the audience enters the performance space and is led in groups to an elevator. There is an immediate lighting change from flickering yellows to darker blues as we enter the grotto where the action takes place. From that moment, the gloomy and cavernous feeling of the show takes over, a far cry from the Disney version of this tale. Sailor’s ropes and other seafaring knickknacks adorn the walls, and glowing shells sit atop each table. It’s an atmosphere that’s at once cozy and ominous, but most of all, enthralling. Add to that a spectacularly choreographed shipwreck and sound design perfectly befitting a sailing adventure and it’s a complete underwater picture.
Then there are the cocktails, which are not only primed for audience participation with the opportunity to mix and accessorize the drinks but also incorporated into the show to boot. One thing ticket holders may want to keep in mind is that although the cocktails are presented in such an engaging way, they were a bit lackluster on their own. Our first drink had a decorative anemone in it, but it wasn’t quite enough to tell that it was intentional, and the first two cocktails felt on the whole like drinking a simple party punch. The last cocktail did stand out, with wonderful and warm tropical flavors and a nice rum baseline. Simply because of the higher ticket price, I feel that this is important to know going into the show. Still, being given the opportunity to drink and make our own “potions” made the experience more of an otherworldly delight.
The actors deserve so much credit. They are faced at every performance with an extremely challenging feat: interesting the audience and enlisting them in the story. Using both their written script and much improvisation, they create farcical, funny characters and bring energy to the material even at times when the audience cannot. The actor who doubles as Prince Frederik and Captain Nobeard is a particular standout, playing both a jaded pirate who lost his merman lover and the archetypical shipwrecked prince with differentiation and humor. He commands the room with witty comebacks and grumpy charisma. Pearl and the Sea Witch never falter in their commitment to character and put their unique spins on the archetypes. They’ve been given a very difficult task, with known, one-sided characters, but by the end manage to engage the crowd, even at 8 PM on a Wednesday night.
That is where The Little Mermaid Cocktail Experience shines, in the shouts of “Yes! Do it!” and “What?!” and “NO!” from audience members. Amanda Haddock (director) has taken a fairytale about a woman who gives up her voice for a man, and not only hs given a voice back to that character but has also given a voice to every person in attendance, regardless of gender. Although the plot turns out to be much less patriarchal than anticipated, it’s really that format, the necessity of speaking, that makes up the heart of the show. And that makes for an ever-changing, very intriguing take on the classic.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
The Little Mermaid Cocktail Experience runs to March 6, 2022, Thursdays to Sundays presented by Fever performing at Union Market, 1262 5th Street NE, Washington, DC. Tickets ($59-$68) are available online. Must be 21+ with valid ID.
The playbill for The Little Mermaid Cocktail Experience is online here. (Casts vary from show to show.)
COVID Safety: Following the District of Columbia requirements, proof of vaccination will be required to access this experience. Click here for more information.