Everything seems to be going so well at Charlotte Ballet as Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux stands on the verge of his final year as artistic director. During his tenure, Bonnefoux has seen his dance troupe establish residence in the trendiest theater in town on South Tryon Street while the company strengthened its educational program at its new administrative HQ on North Tryon Street. Two days before opening night of a nine-performance run of The Little Mermaid, choreographed by Mark Diamond, news broke that the McColl family – the BofA billionaires – had given the company $1 million to revamp Bonnefoux's version of The Nutcracker, leaving little doubt about what the company's most spectacular production will be for years to come. That announcement may have upstaged the new sets and costumes adorning the Diamond remount in the eyes of newspaper readers, but for the horde of little girls who helped fill Knight Theater to near capacity on opening night, the light in their eyes came from the new undersea wonders lavished upon The Little Mermaid.
There was definitely a fresh dazzle in the new costumes by Aimee J. Coleman, and their iridescence wasn't confined to the rig Alessandra Ball James wore as the Mermaid before shedding her tailfins for legs. Three Little Mermaid Friends and a matching pair of Seahorses also gleamed, and there was a Day-Glo phosphorescence to the costumes of the Eels, the Undertow group, and the Fish. This new Little Mermaid signals that the extensive use of youthful dancers at Charlotte Ballet will no longer be confined to the annual Nutcracker extravaganza. No less than 20 kids were listed as Fish in the program, and they actually began the show with an extensive dance of their own, fluttering in formation and seemingly gliding across the stage in a manner that simulated black-light puppetry. Diamond had them admirably schooled to resemble a school of fish at multiple points in their dance.
Costumes that aren't aglow are frequently marvels. Parents no doubt needed to dip into their program booklets to inform their princesses that Ryo Suzuki was an Anemone, but there was no mistaking Raven Barkley for anything but a Sea Turtle. The sheer plenitude of sea creatures that have nothing to do with the story was a constant delight, not in the least Rylie Beck, making her way up the orchestra aisle at a snail's pace and lurking onstage as the Hermit Crab – though she could easily be mistaken for a Mary Poppins' old rucksack. As enchanting as all these costumes were, the new wow factor came from Michael Baumgarten's lighting projections, functional when the Mermaid's destined Prince gets thrown overboard during a storm but truly spectacular as we glided through undersea corals and canyons.
The low tech, held over from previous Mermaid productions of 2008 and 2011, mixed charmingly with the high tech as we watched the scene where the Prince is tossed by the tempest and the Mermaid rescues him. Three linen ribbons that stretched across the stage were the sea, and I'm sure that the sailboat James Kopecky fell out of wasn't even half-built. Throughout the opening act, while the Mermaid remained a finned sea creature, Diamond solved the Mermaid's mobility problem by having her transported in the sort of sledge the crippled Porgy might use, drawn by the same invisible hands that ripple the linen ocean from the wings. When Ball James rose from floor level, she remained horizontal thanks to the ministrations of her Friends and the rolling Undertow crew.
Although Addul Manzano made a dashing appearance as the Sea King, Diamond hasn't integrated him into the drama. Aside from the Mermaid, who occasionally appeared on the verge of being heaved onto a dinner platter, it was Jamie Dee Clifton who made the biggest splash as the Sea Witch. Beyond pointing upwards, the Mermaid didn't articulate what she was yearning for in the climactic encounter with the Witch, but the real exposition gap that Diamond left parents to fill in for their kids was the particulars of the bargain that the Mermaid agreed to when the Witch granted her the ability to walk on land. Clifton's movements – and her saturnine costume – made it clear enough that goodwill and charity weren't motivating the Witch as she granted the Mermaid's wishes, and there was a wondrous fairytale foreboding when Clifton handed Ball James the magic potion that effected her metamorphosis.
Thanks to the last of Baumgarten's projections, the Mermaid awakens on a beauteous seashore with her newfound legs. Diamond didn't skip over the most absurd aspect of the Mermaid's transformation, so we got an endearing, comical incongruity that no parent will be able to explain. After the Mermaid marveled at her feet and toes, she stood up tentatively on her legs like a newborn foal – and within seconds was dancing like the Princess Grace Fellowship winner that Ball James truly is. Even without the same undersea magic afterwards, Diamond constructed a second act that intertwined the Mermaid/Prince romance with a couple of strands of comedy and a couple of explosions of pure dance.
Along with two Charlotte Ballet II troupe members, namely Suzanna Duba and the hunched-over Ben Youngstone, Beck shed her shell to become one of three Gossips. Singly, they snooped and scurried about in various corners and alleys of the set as the Mermaid glowed, blushed, and plain showed off in response to all the attentions that the Prince lavished upon her. Collectively, they engaged in effusive sessions of head-bobbing, mouth-flapping gossip. But it was a military trio, no more pertinent to the action than the Turtle before them, who provided the greatest comic delight. David Morse was pomposity itself as the General, head tilted back and sporting an imposing belly bulge. Yet he began bickering lustily as soon as Josh Hall appeared as the Admiral, topped with the appropriate seafaring hat. It became so heated – and of course, silly – that Amand Pulaj as the Secretary General was hard-pressed to keep them from pawing each other to death.
When he wasn't bickering, the General reviewed a small brigade of Officers whose uniforms were colorfully unalike. But in her costumes for Suzuki, Juwan Alston, Iago Bresciani, Ben Ingel, Thel Moore, and Gregory Taylor, Coleman made sure that each of the designs registered as unmistakably Russian, matching the spirited music by Glière that they dance to. Nearly all these soldier dances were solos where each of the men vied with the others in acrobatic éclat. But the Russian flavor only crystallized what had gone before. There was some Debussy wedged into the score Diamond chose, but with the generous selections from Borodin's chamber and orchestral works, the overall musical texture was decidedly Russian. When we adjourned from the Prince's garden to the ballroom in his palace (the most impressive of Howard Jones' new set designs), we could have been at any Russian ballet, for Diamond's dance stylings were as retro as the music.
During this formal cotillion, Sarah Hayes Harkins came into full flower as the Prince's Fiancée, a vision of cold elegant perfection as she danced with Kopecky, hardly deigning to notice her rival skulking in the corner in her damp rags. The tension between the supple, skittish, and vulnerable Ball James and the serene and imperious Harkins seems so ideal that I wonder how they will be switching roles for four of the nine performances. But they are merely the tip of a general shuffle of principals including Kopecky, Manzano, Hall, Morse, Clifton, and Chelsea Dumas. Diamond could easily shuffle a few more members from the main troupe and the satellite Ballet II dancers without marring the overall effect. The company that Bonnefoux has built is that strong.