BWW Reviews: Life of Walt Disney Musicalized Onstage Through Nov 3 in WHEN YOU WISH

When You Wish/The Story of Walt Disney/script, score and lyrics by Dean McClure/directed by Larry Raben/choreographed by Lee Martino/The Freud Playhouse UCLA/through November 3

When You Wish/The Story of Walt Disney. It is high time that the life and career of iconic artist/animator Walt Disney be honored artistically. Of course, his films all stand the test of time, but we know little about the man, his persona and the early years of struggle. Wouldn't it be assuring to learn that success even for a genius does not come easy? And just plain fun to find out where and how Mickey Mouse came about? Instead of a biopic, the producers have decided upon an original stage musical. Therein lies the biggest flaw. This new tribute is labeled/described as a Pre-Broadway production. Let's reflect a moment or two on what makes for a successful Broadway show. Disney's own The Lion King, from screen to stage, is a perfect example of that kind of huge success. It is a spectacle with grand theatricality, giant universal family conflicts and dynamite appeal in sight and sound to sustain long lines at the box office. As endearing as it is, this little musical When You Wish falls short in these respects... in spite of the fact that it has a dream cast and a superlative creative team. Now onstage through November 3 at the Freud Playhouse at UCLA, the show, nonetheless, does have a carload of merit. If Broadway is not the answer, it does deserve a place somewhere.

Oops! That sounds like a song ...and from a big Broadway show. Let's back up a bit. It has taken 18 years for Dean McClure to get When You Wish produced. A few months ago, it had only six songs and was a one act, 90 minutes long. Now it has fifteen musical numbers in two acts, which span Disney's (Tim Martin Gleason) life from 1908 in Marceline, Missouri where he developed his love of drawing at the age of seven to 1955, commemorating the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, Ca.

What we see in Dean MClure's book is a man who from the very beginning had promise as an artist, but no business sense. He lost money, could not pay the members of his creative team, who disbanded and left him more than a couple of times. His brother Roy ((Andy Umberger) was his rock, but they did not always see eye to eye. Walt's selfish way showed through when he changed the name of the Studio leaving Roy's name off. They split for a bit, but their bond was strong, so rifts never lasted too long. Both married devoted wives: Roy to Edna (Melissa Fahn) and Walt to Lillian (Brandi Burkhardt). No breakups, no divorces; both men remained faithful, and according to McClure, the marriages lasted congenially. So no romantic disloyalty, and apart from the economic stops and starts, no indomitable obstacles that either brother could not defeat. Walt had a dream and whenever times got rough, he never gave up on that dream. The rest is history... The overall plot may seem sanitized; there are most assuredly deeper conflicts in one of Disney's animated films than in this show.

Whatever your opinion may be about the script, Larry Raben has directed with the utmost care and attention to detail, and Lee Martino's choreography is sublime. When dancers enter the scenario, the stage comes alive. One montage that is particularly impressive is the "Animation Ballet" in which films from Pinocchio to Lady and the Tramp are stylishly played out while actors of the creative team draw what's happening and the final effect is shown on a screen behind. Ambitious, imaginative and very entertaining stuff. Thank you, Mr. Raben and Miss Martino for your virtuoso collaboration! McClure's songs are quite beautiful, even though they are mostly ballads..."Someone in Love" especially. More amusing, lighter numbers include "Mickey Who?" and "Paper and Ink", where the two brothers compare notes. Roy tells Walt that they are four million dollars in debt. Walt's response? "We're millionaires!" Walt's twisted optimism: 'sheer lunacy'! Another very funny moment comes after Mickey's great success. Walt pulls a Mickey Mouse watch out of a box and exclaims "This merchandise stuff could help us!" How many billions and billions of dollars have been made on memorabilia since then?

The large 20+ company of actors/singers/dancers do amazing work, led off by a steadily engrossing performance from Gleason as Walt and an equally impressive job by Umberger as Roy. Burkhardt and Fahn are sheer heaven; Norman Large in a variety of roles is a scene stealer. Louis Pardo is another standout as Ub Iwerks, Walt's loyal drawing partner. Tom Buderwitz has designed an effective set with a trademark sky full of stars always on display in the background and Kate Bergh's costumes do each period justice from the early to mid 1900s.

I must admit I enjoyed much of When You Wish. It has potential. It may not be a big flashy Broadway show or anywhere near that, but would certainly play well on a Disney theme park stage or in other venues where family-oriented plays/musicals are more appreciated and valued. New York is a tricky game, especially these days where 'quirky', 'edgy' and 'kinky' are in; the precious, homespun quality of this show would get lost there.

Photo Credit: Ed Krieger

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From This Author Don Grigware