I’m glad that the promotional material for Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch makes it clear that it is a “musical parody”, not merely a prequel and reimagining. For anybody expecting Wicked will be in for a nasty shock!
Ostensibly, Unfortunate retells the story of The Little Mermaid from the point of view of its villain: Ursula. In this regard, it can indeed be compared to Wicked (the 2003 musical based on the 1995 novel). Unfortunate is even subtitled similarly to Wicked, the latter being “The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz”.
However, Unfortunate does not aim to merely retell – but, rather, satirise. Indeed, it can be considered a tribute to, and a parody of, the genre, which includes Disney’s own Maleficent (a retelling of Sleeping Beauty) and Cruella (a retelling of 101 Dalmatians).
In this regard, it can be compared to Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier (a musical parody of Aladdin that puts the spotlight on Jafar, with several nods and homages to Wicked).
So, don’t expect to see the beloved Disney characters brought to life onstage like they are soon being brought to life in the live-action film. That said, the latter has upset a load of (racist) people itself!
Robyn Grant, the Artistic Director of Fat Rascal Theatre (and director, co-writer and co-lyricist of Unfortunate), had previously played Ursula, but the new production stars Elliotte Williams-N’Dure in the lead role – with Grant as the cover. However, due to cast illness, Allie Dart (the Understudy, who can be seen as one of the moray eels in the image above) stepped in on press night (before Grant returned to the role in later performances).
Dart usually played Sebastian (amongst other roles) and had to properly learn the role earlier that day. Danni Payne (Cover Sebastian/Ariel) stepped in to play Sebastian, and there were a few smaller cast changes (going by the West End Live performance, Dart usually plays one of the moray eels). However, everything seemed to flow perfectly; it was impossible to tell that there had been last-minute cast changes.
I was going to say that Dart perfectly embodied Ursula, but then I realised that that was a poor choice of words, for the only thing wrong with Dart’s performance was her body: she’s skinny! The occasional reference to her weight felt off, but we reminded ourselves that Dart was merely covering the role. These references were the only time we remembered that Dart had stepped in last-minute, for her portrayal of the villainous octo-woman was pitch perfect.
Similarly, Payne’s Sebastian was characterised perfectly – and she was brilliant at all of the other roles she played, most notably, Vanessa. Her transition into a seductive, glamorous bombshell was really quite something. Curious and inquisitive, I had wondered whether Payne’s smaller roles were usually played by her, or if some of them generally belonged to Dart – if the latter, I could not tell!
The funniest Sebastian scene had to be his first. Payne came onstage speaking with a Caribbean accent, as the character does in the film, only for Ursula to embarrassingly remind her that she is supposed to be Irish! I absolutely love anything meta, and the way that Dart half broke out of character was fantastic.
This was but one example of the musical masterfully addressing sociopolitical issues – never preachy but, rather, in a cool, suave way. Much like The Boys, it would acknowledge something, before quickly moving on, letting it play out in the audience’s minds, without ever preaching to the choir and exhausting the topic.
Miracle Chance and Jamie Mawson were hilariously subversive as Ariel and Eric, respectively. Privileged and vacuous, bordering on petulant and vile, they reimagined the young lovers that audiences have longed adored – in turn, ruining our childhoods (but entertaining us as adults).
Chance’s main song, ‘Where the Dicks Are’ (a parody of ‘Part of Your World’, which uses a few similar melodies), was, without a doubt, the funniest moment in the entire show – and one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen. It somehow kept getting more and more outrageous, and even featured a statue with a boner! This really is not something you want to take your kids to…
Mawson’s Eric was the answer to Ariel’s prayers (he had a big willy). Whilst there was obviously something stuffed down there, his backside really was that plump (he made sure to reveal it at the end of the show, in case we were wondering – and we were)!
Mawson also played Neptune, the vicious, elderly father of Triton – a small but memorable role which garnered barrels of laughs from the audience. The laughs continued even after the character inevitably died, with Ursula mocking his appearance: the face of an old man with “the body of a twink”!
George Whitty was a terrific Triton (who, in this retelling, was Ursula’s himbo lover), and Jack Gray was splendid as Scuttle (and all of his other supporting characters).
The score did not contain a bad song, and every character got a chance to shine. The best song is arguably the title song: ‘Unfortunate’ – a reimagining of ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’. It had me wanting to get up and start dancing the aisle, but that is not something I would ever do, so I stayed sat and bopped along to it, the respectable Englishman that I am.
Given Ursula is a queer icon (the promo material for Unfortunate even acknowledges this), inspired by the legendary drag queen Divine, I wonder if casting a drag queen (or at least a man in drag) as Ursula could add another layer to the production. Indeed, some fans have criticised the live-action Disney film for casting Melissa McCarthy and not a drag queen, e.g. Ginger Minj, whose rendition of ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ is, inarguably, one of the best.
Then again, this musical is unashamedly feminist (e.g. the song Female Role Models) and explores how strong women are often vilified (especially if they are not conventionally attractive), so casting a man in the role would arguably chip away at the point.
Perhaps the musical could benefit simply from better exploring Ursula’s queer side; Ursula is queer by virtue of being different, but there is arguably a missed opportunity by not addressing her queer identify (gender and sexuality) more succinctly.
It’s important to remember, however, that Ursula is usually played by a Black woman. That casting adds a racial layer, even if it is unintentional. It speaks to White beauty standards and the vilification of strong Black women (e.g. the angry Black woman). Queen Latifah previously played Ursula in The Little Mermaid Live! – and, oh, was she bad!
There are a few things to think about, but the production leaves little to fault. The script is superb, the music is melodious, the lyrics are lavish, the stage design is spectacular, the costumes are captivating, and the performances are perfect.
With a bigger budget, the production could become even stronger – in particular, it would be amazing to see Ursula’s costume get an upgrade (as it already has done since the success of the original production last year). Then again, a musical parody might not benefit from having Ursula in a costume quite as extravagant as the one she wears in the official The Little Mermaid musical.
At its core, Unfortunate is The Little Mermaid for adults: a way for fans of the original movie to appreciate it in our old age!
Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula the Sea Witch has now finished its run at the Lowry (Quays Theatre), but it is touring the UK until early October.