THE LITTLE MERMAID at The Rep: An Epic Road Trip Adventure

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Almost 20 hours in a car. Almost got thrown out of a hotel in Jackson, TN. Almost got stampeded (albeit verrrrrrrry slowly) by the Jingle Bell Runners of Downtown Little Rock. And saw a fantastic production of Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID.

All of that makes for one incredible weekend EPIC ROAD TRIP ADVENTURE!

My friend, Connie, and I headed out on Friday afternoon as we started our way on the 600 mile journey.  We had picked up the rental car on Thursday night; I thought I was getting a great deal by doing the “lock low and go” deal . . . and we ended up in this little beast:


Yep, that’s a Toyota Yardis, a luxury vehicle if I ever saw one.  No cruise control, no remote locks, just an engine, a couple of seats, and underdog-like appeal.   Frankly, I got excited at Dollar Rental Car counter because while Connie thought she said “Taurus” I thought she said “TARDIS.”  I thought we were taking the phone booth from Dr. Who and teleporting to our destination.  A phone booth would have been bigger.

Connie started us out, driving us through Louisville where we stopped at the first Arby’s we saw.  Traffic was atrocious but we managed to get through it and not lose too much time.  Thanks to the comedy stylings of Kathleen Madigan, Jackie Kashain, Louis CK, and Patton Oswalt (via my Spotify premium membership) we stayed energized all the way to Bowling Green, where we got gas and had a DRIVER SWITCH BONANZA!

I got us to Jackson, TN where we planned to check out the brand new Comfort Suites that was advertised several miles earlier on a giant billboard.  We pulled off the exit and saw the Jackson Hotel and Convention Center, which was part of a complex that housed a Motel 6 first.  It was cheap; we were tired.  So we went in.

The desk clerk was nice enough.  He was on the phone when we walked in trying to finish up a reservation.  Another gentleman was waiting to check in and we let him go ahead of us since we needed two rooms . . . and we soon realized that he was quite drunk.  “Look me up, I’m Cliffordamasljfasdjl.”  He said that a handful of times and demanded a discount.  The clerk told him it’d be $44.95; he said “Look me up, I’m Cliffordaskjaskjdfskdjf, I stay here all the time.”  The clerk typed a few more keys and said, “$44.95 is the best I can do.”  Cliffordallkasdfsjfdb agreed.

It was our turn.  Again, the clerk was friendly and as efficient as possible.  He offered us the AARP discount of… drum roll please… $44.95.  We don’t have an AARP membership, of course.  But he said he’d still give us the discount.  Sure!

But things would take a strange turn later on . . .

Fast forward to 2 am.  All is quiet in my ancient-but-clean-enough-for-$44.95-a-night room and I’m fast asleep.  Connie, on the other hand, is apparently hosting a party with the cast of The Wild Party (the Andrew Lippa version, of course) in her room.  Or something like that.

Because Mr. Front Desk Clerk banged on her door, waking her up, demanding that she turn down her TV because guests had complained and stormed out of the hotel demanding a refund.  The only problem is that her TV wasn’t on.  He threatened to throw her out if he had to come back up to her room again. And he said it three times.

Needless to say, she didn’t sleep much that night as she stewed in her anger.  I slept pretty good, though!  She had a chat with the morning desk clerk while I loaded the car.  We’re still waiting on the manager to call us to discuss what happened.  The morning clerk actually said that she thinks the night guy had the wrong room and was too embarrassed when he realized it to stop yelling.  Because that makes sense.

Oh well, this is what Yelp! is for, I guess.

We went to a McDonald’s across the street for breakfast where I was excited to see that they had the long-lost southern-style Chicken Biscuit.  The place was filled up with a bus tour of church-folks but we managed to get there after they had all ordered so we were on the road in no time.

We got to the other side of Memphis and we filled up our gas tank again and had another DRIVER SWITCH BONANZA! Connie drove the rest of the way into downtown Little Rock while we listened to some Disney World insider info podcasts.  We could see our hotel – the Courtyard by Marriott – from the highway so we felt confident we’d find it easily enough.

That was until we were stopped by a police officer blocking traffic due to the Jingle Bell Run.  Connie, a runner herself, couldn’t understand why this was happening at noon.  We asked the cop in the intersection we were at to help us find the hotel and he was very frustrated. He had us stop and while we did, we were in the middle of the intersection where there were people running on either side of the car.  I thought that perhaps some of them were going to run up on top of the Yardis.  But upon further reflection, I hesitate to call any of what they were doing “running.”  More like leisurely walking in the middle of the street.  Perhaps they were holding their stamina because the race continues until Christmas Eve?

Anyway, we finally got free of the masses of Jingle Bell elves, turned around, and parked in a garage . . . which just so happened to be the right one.  The clerk at the Courtyard was simply incredible.  He got us checked in, gave us lunch recommendations, and explained the parking situation.  Turns out we were in the right garage by accident!

We went to our rooms briefly and then headed out to find lunch before the show.  We stumbled upon Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken and this was a great discovery.  We ordered chicken tenders, thinking it would be faster and easier, and they came with baked beans and coleslaw.  There was just enough kick in the breading to make them spicy but not overpowering.  We were very happy.  As soon as we got our check, we raced over to the theatre because we had a friend to see!

DJ Plunkett, a 2015 graduate of UC-CCM’s Musical Theatre program, is one of my dearest and closest friends.  I manage his website and would drive to the ends of the earth to see him (obviously).  Connie is a huge fan of his, as well, and loves him dearly.  So we were jazzed that he had a minute or two to come out and say “hi” before he got into his “Flounder” costume.  We hugged and he went to get ready.

We picked up our tickets at Will Call and waited for the doors of the theatre to open.  Arkansas Repertory Theatre is the only of its kind for many miles and they have a great reputation for putting on amazing shows.  We were very impressed with this production.

The show starts with a powerful overture from the amazing offstage orchestra.  From the minute Katie Emerson appears in the waves as “Ariel,” you get the sense that this is going to be a special kind of theatrical experience.  The use of silks, visual imagery, and acrobatic effects to simulate the undersea world of these characters is inspired. Director Melissa Rain Anderson is a master of creating an on-stage world where the audience can escape and relish in magical delights.

Shane Kennon as “Prince Eric” has great stage presence and a rich texture to his voice.  Amy Jo Jackson is deliciously evil as “Ursula;” I only wish she had more time on stage and that her first number wasn’t so rushed. She’s got more evil to give, I’m certain.  Ben Liebert as “Scuttle” is understatedly funny and his tap number is a highlight of the show.  Cornelius Davis (“Sebastian”) is fantastic, especially in the rousing “Under the Sea” number.  Evan Tyrone Martin (“King Triton”) is someone I’d like to see more of – especially if he’s going to sing.  Luke Grooms, also a CCM graduate, but in Opera, is vocally magnificent and over-the-top hilarious as “Chef Louis.”  The entire cast from top to bottom did a great job, especially the very funny mermaid sisters of Ariel.

The real star of this show, though, has to be the hand-made costumes by Rafael Colon Castanera and wig design by Rob Pickens.  The exquisite detail, the amazing quality, and the visual appeal totally transforms a very well acted and performed show into near-Broadway level quality.

But of course, we came to see “Flounder.”  Call me biased if you want (he does) but in my opinion DJ Plunkett is one of the most consistent, professional, and vocally-healthy performers I know.  For this role he rides a ripstick; this isn’t exactly a skill that he’s practiced all his life.  But he is effortless as he rolls into view in his over-sized yellow and blue costume and headpiece.  He is completely believable as the young tropical fish with a crush on Ariel; his heart-breaking delivery of the line “I’d miss you if you were gone” is throat-lump inducing.  And when he sings “She’s in Love” . . . well, it’s just about perfect.

We had a meal with our superstar and caught up with him.  And then we saw the show again!  Click here for a preview video of the luscious production.

Needless to say our nine-and-a-half hours in the tiny car was well worth it.  Oh there were some things I didn’t love.  King Triton bumped a light with his bulky Kinky-Boots-like costume, shining it directly into our faces during the evening performance and it took a bit for the lighting folks to realize what was wrong.  I thought the costumes on Flotsam and Jetsam, the evil eels, were far too drag-queen (though these twin actors – Jared and Zach Green – were wonderful).  And the matinée performance lacked some energy; the night show was light years better.  But these are minor quibbles; the show far exceeded my expectations and the other reviews are spectacular.

We made our way back to the hotel (it’s a little hike from the theatre to the Courtyard, but not terrible) and we both slept well knowing we had a full day of driving ahead.  There were really no major events on Sunday, which was just fine with us.  We shared the driving, ate at McDonald’s and Arby’s again (creatures of habit, I know) and got home with plenty of time to spare to turn in the rental car.  In fact, we came in way under budget for the trip.  I’m quite proud of that.

We had lots of time to discuss lots of things on the way home.  But the most agreed upon discussion topic was that this EPIC ROAD TRIP ADVENTURE was very worth it – and we’d do it again in a heartbeat.

So, any Little Rockians reading this – if you don’t have tickets yet to the show you better hurry up. They did add a couple of performances but it’s selling very well.  I highly recommend the show, the theatre, and the city!

DISNEY’S THE LITTLE MERMAID runs through January 3rd at Arkansas Repertory Theatre in downtown Little Rock.  Click here for more information.