Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review: When You Wish, The Story of Walt Disney

Andy Umberger (Roy Disney) and Tim Martin Gleason (Walt Disney).
Photos by Ed Krieger

Twenty actors play fifty nine different characters in Dean McClure’s new musical When You Wish: The Story of Walt Disney premiering at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse. Walt’s family members, studio personnel, animators, and even the characters they draw, all find a place in this inspiring tale. Walt was a true visionary. Thanks to him we have Mickey Mouse, Pinocchio, Snow White, Cinderella, and hundreds of beloved characters who have become best friends, role models, and favorite pals to kids worldwide.

For those, like me, who know little of his early life and career, the story is quite interesting. From a little boy of 6 who drew cartoons on toilet paper and listened to his mother talk about wishing stars in the sky, to the opening of Disneyland almost fifty years later, the musical shows how he overcame setback after setback to create a world no one had ever imagined before.

He was the first to put a live girl in a cartoon in the Alice Comedies and the first to create a cartoon with synchronized sound (Steamboat Willie). He suffered the painful loss of his Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City and lost his closest staff members more than once. A move to Hollywood reunited him with his brother Roy, who had relocated because of his tuberculosis, and there a new studio was born named the Disney Bros. Studio.

The musical highlights the brothers’ close relationship and I think it would be safe to say there would have been no Walt Disney without Roy. Roy was the businessman. Walt was the creative genius. Or as they say in the musical - Walt draws; Roy worries. They may not have always agreed on the best course of action but Roy had Walt’s back and because of that they made a great team.

This brotherly bond is an important part of the musical and Andy Umberger (Roy) and Timothy Martin Gleason (Walt) convincingly capture the essence of their relationship. Gleason shows Walt to be a boyish, complicated, earnest man who was obsessively focused on his professional work. His credits include The Phantom of the Opera, and most recently, the new musical Sleepless in Seattle, and he’s a great choice for the role. Vocally strong and able to embody Walt’s childlike naiveté along with his passion, he carries the musical through this stage of its development.

Umberger’s down to earth likeability gives the musical a folksy quality. He has the difficult job of making sense of some awkward writing in which he steps out of scenes to deliver narration, and with director Larry Raben’s assistance, makes the transitions as smooth as possible.

Brandi Burkhardt and Tim Martin Gleason
Also highlighted is Walt’s relationship with the woman he would marry. Lillian (charming Brandi Burkhardt) was a secretary who worked in the ink and paint department of the studio and fell in love with his somewhat bumbling manner. McClure gives the pair a lovely duet entitled “Someone in Love” to express their feelings and a perfect Hollywood proposal to go along with it. Another scene shows how Lillian would be instrumental in making sure Disney’s most famous mouse would not be called Mortimer, and later, a much needed vacation for the couple would result in Walt’s inspiration for the locations in his theme park.

Norman Large (Maestro Carl Edouardo), David Michael Laffey (Pat Powers)
and Garret Marshall (sound engineer)

Norman Large has got to be the best utility player in town and his character work on the eight different roles he plays in When You Wish is as memorable as ever. You can pick your favorite but mine was his eccentric Maestro Carl Edouardo.

The program touts this musical as a pre-Broadway production and though there are many things to like already in place, there is still work to be done. Isolated songs are terrific with the music for “Always a Wolf at the Door,” “No Limits on Me,” “Just Like the Good Old Day,” and the “Paper and Ink” buddy number very upbeat and fun. But the lyrics are mostly general and at times even monotonous.

Case in point, “No Limits on Me” repeats the phrase “no limits on me” seven times within about 30 seconds. Ub (Louis Pardo) sings a pop treatment of “Someone Else’s Life” that contains the same thoughts he has just spoken in the scene before the song begins and the ballads, while pretty, don’t have enough individuality or sparkle to be remembered past the applause. Walt’s passionate “I’ll Buy Her Diamonds” musically felt like the high point of Act I but the scene naming Mickey Mouse followed. It was cute, but somewhat anti-climactic. 

To McClures credit, it is a difficult undertaking to write a musical about Walt Disney that doesn’t include any of his iconic songs. Further development could eventually result in something wonderful but not without continued work. To title the musical When You Wish sets up an expectation that it will contain the kind of magic and music worthy of the Disney name, and unless you meet that expectation with the original songs, it cannot help but feel a little flat. The other trap is that by writing another song entitled “When You Wish” it is almost impossible not to compare it to the original “When You Wish Upon a Star” and find it lacking.

The potential for this Disney story musical exists but it is too early to consider a move to New York without more development work and fine-tuning. Pulling back the animated curtain to see how Walt Disney became such a phenomenal success is worth the investment of time and resources to make it the best it can be. It is, after all, the story of one of the greatest entertainment icons Hollywood has ever seen. 

WHEN YOU WISH, The Story of Walt Disney

Book, Music & Lyrics by Dean McClure
Directed by Larry Raben
Choreography by Lee Martino

Musical Supervisor: Darryl Archibald
Oct 11 - Nov 3, 2013

Freud Playhouse


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