I recently went to see Disney's The Little Mermaid at The Fox Theatre in Atlanta. This venture was inspired by a previous anniversary's success with The Lion King-- my husband was moved to tears within the first line of Rafiki's wonderfully rich cry.
Due to its predecessor, this experience was not what we expected. The Little Mermaid seems much more geared toward the self-same audience of its animated counterpart: young children. While this is not inherently bad, after the balance of relatively adult themes in The Lion King and The Beauty and the Beast (Mufasa's gut-wrenching death; the Beast's genuine fearfulness and Gaston's beyond crude behavior, respectively), The Little Mermaid seemed to fall flat.
The power of The Lion King lay in its truly original, groundbreaking costume design.
The Beauty and the Beast excelled because it fleshed out the characters (Gaston's motives become clearer, the bond between Belle and her father are strengthened, and the Beast's backstory--and pain--take full light in "If I Can't Love Her").
I did appreciate The Little Mermaid's added tidbits, such as...
A basis for King Triton's fear/hatred of humankind;
Ursula's claim to the throne being that she is Triton's elder sister;
mythological context as the pair being the children of the sea god Poseidon;
a fleeting crush on Flounder's part;
more build-up for the romance between Ariel and Eric to be semi-believable.
However, the overly cheerful portrayal of Ariel made her seem ridiculously young and juvenile to be marrying a 21 year old Eric (a plot point that was firmly stated, while her age was left ambiguous, though she is 16 in the animated film).
There were some admirable attempts to inject some feminism into the marriage plot (though somewhat forced):
Playwright Doug Wright was brought on as book writer, focusing the story line on Ariel's longing not for her prince, but for "a world in which she feels truly realized in her own terms. ... Her ambitions are bigger than any one man."
Eric asks King Triton for his blessing to marry Ariel. King Triton says that it is Ariel's place to answer, and she accepts Eric's proposal.
That being said, considering the long journey The Little Mermaid had to endure-- wherein the original production closed after only 685 shows and had to be reinvented (replacing skates with flying harnesses for all but the eels, Flotsam and Jetsam) --I'd say that it's a great show!