NEW YORK - From the moment I saw Ariel glide onto the Broadway stage of

The Little Mermaid,

I wished I could be, wanderin' free, part of her world - an undersea universe of steady motion and undulating lights, frilly creatures who glisten and float effortlessly (on roller shoes), and delectable characters we know.

We know them because The Little Mermaid has, for 18 years since its release as an elaborately drawn Disney take on Hans Christian Andersen's story, fully gotten its hooks into us. If you're a toddler, a teen or a college-age adult, a parent or grandparent, odds-on you've seen it.

The new theatrical version, which opened Thursday, is as animated in real life as on screen - a triumph of stagecraft, with George Tsypin's stupendous sea-world structures, and scattered crystalline pieces that rise and fall to create waves.

Natasha Katz (Tarzan, The Coast of Utopia) illuminates the show so that the world is bright on both sides of the waterline, each believable. Tatiana Noginova's fanciful costumes accessorize the sea creatures with a snorkeler's delight - and she knows how to shake tail: Those mermaids emote with their bodies as much as their faces. Choreographer Stephen Mear figures ways for dancers to appear submerged, often dancing on rollers.

The music of Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman sounds great, and if the show has a downside, it's the new songs, written by Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater. Some are transparently derivative of the old ones. Still, one new number, "She's in Love," a Broadway belter from Ariel's sisters and her playmate, Flounder (a rotating part, with an adorable big-voiced kid named Brian D'Addario the night I saw it), is as catchy and memorable as anything in the original.

Good vs. evil

The script by Doug Wright (

I Am My Own Wife, Grey Gardens

) moves briskly, and keeps you smiling and rooting for good against evil.

When captivating Sierra Boggess, in her Broadway debut as Ariel, sings "Part of Your World," aching to explore the human habitat above, you want to melt into the water with her. A few minutes later, stage-door-handsome Sean Palmer

, the drowning prince who's been rescued by Ariel, is aching himself in a new song, "Her Voice." His lucent tenor begs you to tell him that everything will be OK.

If this sounds like the feeling you get from the no-exit plot of some operas, that's because The Little Mermaid is directed by Francesca Zambello, who's staged operas around the world. She imbues the production with high drama that respects its animated loopiness and brings out the best in her cast.

Long-suffering crab

Super-buff Norm Lewis, as Ariel's dad, King Triton, is at once demanding and loving. Tituss Burgess' Sebastian, the long-suffering crab who watches over Ariel, nails "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl," Caribbean-tinged highlights. Eddie Korbich's Scuttle, the seagull, is a super squawker, and Sherie Rene Scott (

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Aida

) makes the menacing sea witch, Ursula, all her own. Her "Poor Unfortunate Souls," in which she gets Ariel to trade her voice and freedom for a chance to go on ground and find the prince she's rescued, is less menacing than the tremendously fearsome Ursula that Pat Carroll vocalized for the film. But it works, in a different way.

There's a show stealer: John Treacy Egan, the chef who sings about the fish he's preparing, a culinary Jack the Ripper with his hatchet.

I saw the show with my own Ariel, who's 16, shares the mermaid's name, and was greatly taken by the stage version. I was delighted she wanted to see it with me - not least because of what The Little Mermaid says about women, under the sea or above it.

You have to hand it to Disney, purveyor of the dependent Cinderella, now championing girls who seek to take charge: Pocahontas, Beauty and the Beast's Belle, and Ariel. "Bright young women, sick of swimmin', ready to stand," is how Ariel sings it, and how I hope my Ariel will sing it, too.

The Little Mermaid

Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater, script by Doug Wright, based on Hans Christian Andersen's story. Directed by Francesca Zambello, choreographed by Stephen Mear, sets by George Tsypin, costumes by Tatiana Noginova, lighting by Natasha Katz.

The cast: Sierra Boggess (Ariel), Sean Palmer (Prince Eric), Norm Lewis (Triton), Tituss Burgess (Sebastian), Sherie Rene Scott (Ursula), Eddie Korbich (Scuttle), John Treacy Egan (Chef Louis). Playing at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St., New York. Tickets: $51.50 to $121.50. Information: 1-800-755-4000 or