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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

Disney in Concert Magical Music from the Movies
Symphony Hall

Also see Gil's reviews of Biloxi Blues and The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess


Walt Disney and Disney animation have always held a certain affection for moviegoers, even before the triumph of their recent mega hit Frozen, and many of their animated films have been successfully turned into Broadway musicals. While Disney has had much luck over the years since the release of their first full-length animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, it was really The Little Mermaid in 1989 that served as the beginning of the resurgence of animation at Disney. Over the past 25 years, the combination of well-honed stories with superb film scoring and top notch songs, often from Broadway composers, has cemented each Disney film as a treat for both film and theatre fans. In fact, their 1991 film Beauty and the Beast was not only nominated for the Oscar for Best Movie but also got the attention of New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich who deemed it "The best Broadway musical score of 1991" even though it was not yet a Broadway show.

For Disney animation lovers and musical theatre fans, the recent concert for symphony orchestras entitled "Disney in Concert Magical Music from the Movies" was the perfect combination of rousing film score music and Broadway style movie song. This concert has been performed with various symphony orchestras across the country over the past few years, and audiences in Phoenix got a treat when conductor Stuart Chafetz led the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra in this affectionate nod to some of the best music and songs from Disney films. A cast of four talented singers, all of whom have national tour and/or New York theatre credits under their belts, and who have all performed this concert with other symphony orchestras before, provided plenty of energy and emotion while performing the songs. With the added visual impact of scenes and original artwork from the films projected on a large screen above, the right balance between stirring film scores and impeccably written songs showed the magic that the two often create when combined with lively, colorful and often beautiful animation. Written and directed by Sherilyn Draper, with the contribution of musical director Ted Ricketts who created the program for Symphony Pops Music, the concert provided fun, upbeat feelings. It's easy to see why this show has been performed across the country so many times.

Juliana Hansen, Andrew Johnson, Whitney Claire Kaufman and Aaron Phillips were the vocalists for this concert and each was given several opportunities to shine. Hansen and Kaufman took on the songs associated with the "Disney Princess" roles, including The Little Mermaid's Ariel and Beauty and the Beast's Belle, and Johnson and Phillips performed character role songs, such as Beauty and the Beast's Lumiere and Aladdin's Genie.

The concert got off to a rousing start with the Symphony performing the "Disney Classics Overture," a suite arranged by Bruce Healey of over a dozen themes and songs from films such as Snow White, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella, including "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah," "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes," "Chim Chim Cher-ee," and even the "Theme to the Mickey Mouse Club." A lovely suite of songs from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's The Little Mermaid followed and featured Hansen singing "Part of Your World," her voice giving the song a nice and appropriate "girly" sound that matched well with Ashman's youthful, soul searching lyrics. Kaufman provided a proud and sensitive version of Menken and Stephen Schwartz's "Colors of the Wind" from Pocahontas with the Symphony's moving and precise playing matching the soaring vocals.

A suite from Menken and Ashman's Beauty and the Beast featured all four vocalists in a nicely delivered rendition of "Belle" which was followed by the love duet of the title song sung effectively by Kaufman with Johnson. Phillips, who is also an accomplished voice-over artist, brought a heightened level of energy to the concert, providing some fun dance moves and high level antics to each of his numbers, including "Be Our Guest" as well as a rousing "I Wan'na Be Like You," from Richard and Robert Sherman's The Jungle Book score, which featured some lively backup vocals from the other singers. A medley of songs from the Sherman brothers' Mary Poppins score ended the first half of the concert, featuring numerous well-known tunes with sing-along lyrics projected over some exquisite original artwork and storyboards for the film.

The second act opened with a thrilling suite from The Hunchback of Notre Dame that focused on Menken's musical motifs. The Symphony, as usual, provided amazing accompaniment with every section of the orchestra given plenty of moments to show their adept skills and musicianship. While the focus on the Symphony's capabilities was most apparent during the solo turns the Symphony got, including a driving suite of Klaus Badelt's music from The Pirates of the Caribbean, it was also a highlight during some moments in the film suites that allowed the playing of the Symphony to stand alone without vocal accompaniment.

Menken, Ashman and Tim Rice's score for Aladdin gave Phillips another chance to show his crackerjack vocal skills and high energy dancing with an energetic take on "Friend Like Me." Though that suite's version of "A Whole New World" wasn't quite as successful, with Johnson's vocals surpassing Hansen's during the love duet from this film.

The highlight of the evening was a stirring Suite of songs and film music from Elton John, Rice and Hans Zimmer's score to The Lion King that featured Phillips showing his serious side, in an emotionally heartfelt take on "Can You Feel the Love Tonight". And, while Johnson's take on "Under the Sea" during the suite from the Little Mermaid wasn't as lively as it could have been, he brought considerable power to "Circle of Life," supported by the trio of singers. The final song in the concert, the usually annoying and redundant "It's a Small World," when delivered as a sing-along, with the words projected on the screen above, actually made the song a fun, joyous affair.

As festive, upbeat and fun as the concert was, there were a few downsides. While the vocalists were used effectively throughout the evening, and all added nice contributions, some of their performances were a bit "over the top" and too energetic, as if they were trying too hard to connect with the audience. While I understand that, in order to rouse the younger children in the audience this may have been the direction the cast was given, I think they are underestimating the abilities and attention span of children who are already familiar with, and in love with, the music featured in the concert. Also, some of the scripted narration that introduced the films and their music was a bit cloying. Fortunately, the amount of narration was small and the over eager performances settled down after the first half of the concert. A major positive was that the audience included an abundance of young children and teenagers, and I didn't notice any of them becoming restless or tired.. Hopefully, attending a concert like this might encourage some of them to attend other performances in the Phoenix Symphony's rich and diverse "Family" concert series or even learn to play a musical instrument.

The Disney animated films have a breadth of captivating music. Hearing music and songs from so many beloved film scores played by the skilled Phoenix Symphony Orchestra and paired with enthusiastic vocal performances, shows the power and sensitivity behind these famous film songs, resulting in an extremely rewarding experience. "Disney in Concert Magical Music from the Movies" is a nicely constructed show and another success for the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra.

Disney in Concert with the Phoenix Symphony played two performances on June 6th and June 7th, 2014, at Symphony Hall in Phoenix. Information on upcoming performances with the Phoenix Symphony can be found at www.phoenixsymphony.org.

Stuart Chafetz, conductor
With Juliana Hansen, Whitney Claire Kaufman, Aaron Phillips and Andrew Johnson.

--Gil Benbrook


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix



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