Toon It Up

Disney's On the Record

Mar 16, 2005 at 4:00 am
It must have seemed like a good idea at the time: a musical revue drawn from 74 years of mostly classic Disney movies. So what if the 1930 Mickey Mouse cartoon The Shindig is long forgotten and last year's animated feature Home on the Range is even more forgettable; in between there's so much music to gorge on -- memorable songs from Peter Pan and Pinocchio and The Little Mermaid and The Lion King...what a list!

A cynic might suggest that On the Record, currently spinning its tunes at the Fox Theatre, is yet another example of the Disney conglomerate milking its own cash cow. On the other hand, with Broadway musical theater on the ropes, On the Record fills a void. But little did its creators realize when they opened the Disney treasure chest that it would morph into a Pandora's box.

So many problems; so many decisions. For starters, what is the show's target audience? The 60 songs are divided between vintage Disney classics and more recent fare, with the result being that hardly anyone in the audience knows all the music, and everybody's left out of something. And how to present the material? The conceit here is that four performers are plugging away in a recording studio. But why are they recording these songs? And who are these people? Not a word of dialogue is spoken; instead the playbill lists a "scenarist." (Didn't that credit go out with D.W. Griffith's silent movies?) Whatever they paid this scenarist, it's too much, because his semblance of a layered-on scenario is gossamer hokum.

But why should there be any plot at all? Why would viewers want to bother with a new contrived storyline when the songs are a direct pipeline back to the old Disney movies? With Disney, it's always about the movies -- and the memories. Anything that gets in the way of those memories is going to slow the proceedings down.

Yet the evening serves up sporadic refreshing moments. Here's something original: The show is not preceded by an announcement. No Big Brother voice instructs us to turn off our cell phones and refrain from taking photos. How startling nowadays to attend an evening of theater that simply begins when the curtain rises.

When it does rise, all is stillness and anticipation. Then Cinderella incarnate, in the lithe personage of Ashley Brown, walks onto the empty stage and, a cappella, begins to sing "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes." The moment is gorgeous in its effortlessness. Soon Brown is joined by the ensemble: an assured, statuesque Kaitlin Hopkins, Andrew Samonsky, Brian Sutherland, plus four backup singer/dancers and an eight-man band whose onstage potential isn't utilized nearly enough.

Now begin the "sessions" -- sometimes medleys, sometimes solos; sometimes charmingly irreverent, too often not. The session that pairs Lady and the Tramp with The Aristocats is great fun, especially when the svelte Hopkins and the demure Brown purr together on "He's a Tramp."

But the unsettling thing about the revue is that it only entertains in fits and starts. There's an eerie sense that revisions on the piece abruptly stopped before all the work was done. For instance, the Act One closer, a delightful melodic maze that intertwines three decades' worth of Disney's most tongue-twisting lyrics, would be even more effective if placed at the top of Act One, where its blend of energy and humor could set a high bar for the rest of the evening. They also need to come up with a more potent finale than "A Spoonful of Sugar." And while they're at it, they might want to take another look at the lighting, which -- in its deepest blues and oranges -- tends to transform the padded recording studio walls into giant dental x-rays.

There's lots of work still to be done here. But it would be a shame to give up on a show that's already halfway home. Even at its worst, On the Record is merely bland; it's never painful or offensive. But it's still a long way from reaching that plateau where it will create Disney-esque memories of its own.