Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Also see Gil's reviews of Me and My Girl, Hector Coris and Matt Newhard in Together (For No Good Reason), Postcards from the Apocalypse, and Curtains
Over a dozen years ago, a visit to Disneyland gave Dean McClure the idea to turn the life of Walt Disney into a musical. McClure not only wrote the music but also the lyrics and book for the show. He also got input from Walt's daughter Diane Disney Miller and Walt's nephew Roy Disney. In 2013 a production at the Freud Playhouse in California was well received and that workshop was the impetus for this updated version of the show at Phoenix Theatre.
McClure's script is nicely structured and uses the creation of Disneyland to bookend the early story of Walt and his brother Roy and the many setbacks the two had before Mickey Mouse, Snow White, and the Disney Studios made them into household names. McClure does a good job in showing Walt's artistic genius, forward thinking, and risk taking. The show also details the strong relationship he had with his brother and his wife Lillian, as well as how Roy's business acumen occasionally stymied Walt's ideas but also grounded him without completely getting in the way of his determination and perfectionism. McClure's dialogue is good, especially in the humorous courtship scene Walt has with Lillian and the many confrontations the trustworthy Walt has with the businessmen he needs in order to get his films made and distributed.
However, there are several problems in the book. While Roy features somewhat as the narrator, his contributions should either be beefed up or eliminated as they currently only exist to occasionally tell us of things that happened that aren't shown on stage. Also, there is a major plot element about the distribution rights to Walt's earlier cartoons, including the possibility of a lawsuit or payoff, that we never see resolved, which leaves a big hole in the second act, especially since so much time is spent on the brothers finding people to distribute their cartoons. Also, it's unfortunate that McClure wasn't able to get the rights from the Walt Disney Company to use any images or video of the many successful Disney films in the show. While the creation of Mickey Mouse is fairly well re-created, the images that portray Walt's early cartoons aren't very impressive and the way the show portrays the many successful films that followed Mickey Mouse are more in the style of a lackluster, bare bones Disney knock-off musical production.
McClure's score also has a few shortcomings, with a number of the large scale ensemble songs not having many hooks or repeated motifs to register with the listener, and a few featuring lackluster orchestrations and unnecessary extended dance sequences. However, a few of the solo and duet numbers are quite good, including Walt's moving act one solo "Once There Was a Dream" as well the sweet "I'd Buy Her Diamonds" for Walt and Lillian, and "Someone Else's Life" that Roy sings with "Ub" Iwerks, one of Walt's closest friends and the co-creator of Mickey Mouse.
The main cast is quite good, with Joey Sorge finding a way to effectively show the many layers of Walt Disney, including the negative aspects of stubbornness, selfishness, and a controlling demeanor that are all part of his constant need to get his creations out and to find success. But Sorge also does well in showing the care and love Walt has for his brother and wife. Sydney Marie Hawes is sweet and smart as Lillian while Andy Umberger instills Roy with a keen sense of brotherly love.
Larry Raben's direction keeps the focus on Walt's genius and his drive to get his ideas out there without being too schmaltzy. Creative elements are fine, with Robert Kovach and Jon Infante's scenic and video designs, respectively, using a nice combination of small set elements and background video images to depict drawings that morph into real images. Cari Smith's costumes are period perfect with a nice mix of patterns and designs from the early 20th century.
McClure's idea to create a musical based on Walt Disney is a good one, especially since not many people know about the struggle he and Roy had before they found success. With a little more focus and clarification of the book, beefing the score, and hopefully the contribution of the Disney Company, When You Wish could become a success.
When You Wish runs through June 12th, 2016, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151.
*Member of Actors' Equity Association