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Small World

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 17, 2017

Mark Shanahan and Stephen D'Ambrose
Photo by Carol Rosegg

You've heard, of course, of the comic teams of Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy. But how about the odd couple pairing of Disney and Stravinsky, the subjects of Frederick Stroppel's lightweight yet often surprisingly perceptive comedy Small World? That's Walt Disney, the founder of the animation empire that bears his name, and Igor Stravinsky, the great Russian composer. And although the play, opening tonight at 59E59 Theaters, stems solely from the imagination of its creator, it has its roots in a real-life collaboration between the two.

Small World opens in 1939. Stravinsky (Stephen D'Ambrose) appears on one side of the stage dressed formally in a three-piece suit and begins to expound on the opening notes of the orchestral work he composed for the ballet "The Rite of Spring." With the music playing in the background, it is a lovely moment, like being present at one of Leonard Bernstein's famous lectures: "the lone bassoon describes a descending figure, and then dissipates." The lights dim and come up on the other side of the stage, where Disney (Mark Shanahan), more casually attired in a sports jacket, slacks, and a loud tie, speaks in the tones of a pitchman, selling us with just as much passion on the creation of a pencil sketch that ultimately will evolve into one of his animal characters.

It's a wonderful establishing moment for the play. The contrast between the two could not be clearer, thanks to Patricia E. Doherty's perfect period costume design and the clash of styles between the grandiloquent European maestro and the purveyor of the American can-do entrepreneurial spirit. It's hardly a match made in heaven, yet here they are, coming together to discuss Disney's latest project, an animated film that will marry his love of cartoon critters with classical music, a movie to be called "Fantasia."

Running 75 minutes, the play is roughly divided into three scenes. In the first, Disney and Stravinsky clearly are occupying different universes. And while they try to keep the conversation polite, they can't avoid stepping on one another's toes as Disney tries to sell Stravinsky on the stripped-down, rearranged, and reimagined rendering of "The Rite of Spring," from its original tale of a pagan ritual to a piece about dinosaurs. "This is going to make you famous," he promises the renowned composer. "Wait til you see what we've done with it!"

Regardless of their total lack of compatibility, the movie of "Fantasia" gets made as Disney envisions it. And it is a failure at the box office, causing Disney to have deep doubts about his prowess as the golden boy of audience-pleasing movies. Despite their aesthetic differences, however, the two come together again after Stravinsky has moved to California and is seeking ways to make some money. His fortune is tied up in Occupied France, reminding us that while they are quibbling over high and low art, the world is at war. In this second section of the play, the two consider the horrors of that war, and their conversation turns to such matters as Disney's alleged streak of anti-Semitism and Stravinsky's admiration of Mussolini. While the play doesn't dwell for too long on these elements, it does remind us that both men had a dark side, something that deepens things beyond the earlier bantering tone. The final section, which unnecessarily stretches out the evening, has the pair meeting once more, this time in the afterlife, where, one assumes, they will continue their debate for all of eternity.

Even with its short running time, Small World would benefit from some editing by dropping the afterlife section and a few of the too-easy jokes referencing other Disney films. Nevertheless, it generally makes for an entertaining evening, with excellent contrasting performances by its co-stars, under Joe Brancato's fluid direction. Christina Watanabe's lighting design, which at times is used to mimic film projection, and James J. Fenton's set design incorporating sketches from "Fantasia" and sections of the music score, contribute greatly to setting the tone.

Small World
Through October 7
59E59 Theater B, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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