Up until now, it hasn’t been easy to sound optimistic about Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre’s fortunes in their 41st year. Both of their musicals, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Li’l Abner, have been wonderfully presented, with fine singing and acting from the frontliners, along with improved scenery and costume designs that hint at expanded budgets. Sad to say, the enhanced technical refinements did not result in enhanced attendance. On the contrary, audiences were noticeably smaller than usual at the matinee and evening shows I attended, with a conspicuous lack of fresh young theatregoers. So it was doubly gratifying to see the current production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid Jr. at Halton Theater. Attendance and enthusiasm – on a Thursday morning! – were more robust than they had been for the adult shows, boosted by a good number of kiddie groups in their matching T-shirts and cutesy girleens in glittery mermaid outfits.

Equally auspicious were the production values onstage. At CPCC’s original summer theatre venue, Pease Auditorium, I’d always note a falloff in the costuming for the kiddie fare, and the saccharine juvenility of the musicals could be downright oppressive. When CPCC Summer Theatre nestled into Halton Theater for the 2006 season, the kiddie show was wisely left behind. Then when CPCC morning presentations crossed Elizabeth Avenue into the larger space with Seussical in 2007, costuming was upgraded in tandem with the less stultifying fare. But if Halton has sometimes looked a little too spacious for the adult musicals, the children’s musicals have looked like they were starving for scenery. Last year, with seemingly straightened budgets, there were times that the adult productions were stooping to kiddie levels, but this year, the small fry musical has risen to the stratosphere to finally reach parity with the evening fare. Heidi O’Hare has spawned a wonderful set of costume designs, colorful for the blithe fishies and mermaids, gross for the octopus Ursula. Biff Edge’s scenery, including archways for King Triton’s throne room and the sea witch Ursula’s lair, have unprecedented height and solidity, and the numerous set pieces and drops begin to rival the technical exploits we routinely see at ImaginOn in Children’s Theatre of Charlotte productions. Scene changes weren’t as slick as those at ImaginOn, but it was adorable to watch the kids in this fine cast diligently putting their backs into them.

The youngsters who performed supporting roles in Little Mermaid also reached levels I’ve haven’t seen lately in Charlotte outside ImaginOn. Elyssa Kim as Ariel’s pal Flounder, a role that was split between four kids on Broadway, is simply sensational. Older and more involved in the music are TJ and Ryan Kapur. TJ gets a nice solo as Scuttle the seagull holding forth on “Human Stuff,” and Ryan goes calypso twice on two of the score’s bona fide hits, “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.” Was it too much to expect, after an alluring Marguerite St. Just in Pimpernel and a sunshiny Daisy Mae in Abner, that we’d get an equally distinguished female lead in the title role of Mermaid? Not this year, with both the Daisy and Abner players reincarnated as the chaste Mermaid leads. In a long curly red wig, Beth Anderson was youthful, wholesome, and pleasantly frisky as Ariel, perfect for fairytale and Disney. There was an “Over the Rainbow” dreaminess when Anderson sang “Part of That World,” infused with just a pinch of perky determination as she contemplated life in the dry regions above. Zach Teague provided Prince Eric with more than enough dreamboat regality for the undersea princess to fixate on, quite dashing in the opening scene, riding the waves in a boat bequeathed by The Scarlet Pimpernel production. Teague’s obsession with “Her Voice” rose to a sublimated level that was nicely complementary to Ariel’s innocence.

Two more of the worthies from Abner tackled supporting roles with brio. Under a rather absurd wig, Christian Muller wasn’t particularly distinguished, but when we reach dry land, director Ron Chisholm has Muller doubling as Chef Louis, an efficiency not seen on Broadway, and Muller made quite a meal of “Les Poissons,” le Chef’s featured song. No less cagey, Chisholm has tapped the comical scene-stealer from Abner, Michael Bingham, as his Ursula, adding a comical dimension that softens our villain for the kids in the audience. It’s easy to carp about the lack of a live band in the Halton’s orchestra pit, but Jean Colgan Phillips has certainly been stellar with her music direction behind the scenes with young and old. Subterranean tapdance choreography by Clay Daniel was also effective in bridging the generations.

The savviest element of this handsome Mermaid Jr. effort may be its placement in the CPCC Summer Theatre schedule. Now that a better brand of child-oriented fare is justifying the fresh enthusiasm for morning shows at CPCC, maybe some of the parents who witness the merits of Mermaid might be tempted to treat their kids to the full-length family extravaganza coming up next at Halton Theater, Disney’s Mary Poppins. If so, the 60-minute spoonful of musical that has charmed the morning crowds may turn out to be the medicine needed to spark better turnouts at the Halton in evenings yet to come – and infuse more youth into the audience mix.

The Little Mermaid Jr. continues through Saturday, July 12. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.