Disney's On the Record

Also see Ann's review of Anna in the Tropics

On the Record is labeled a musical, but that would be an inacurate description by most people's standards. This is a revue, with very minimal character development, and virtually no plot. However, there's no shame in being known as a revue, and this is a good one. Co-conceiver Robert Longbottom and "Scenarist" Chad Beguelin have culled 58 songs (by current count - this is only the second city the show has played, and the list may still be changing) from the hefty and impressive collection of songs popularized in Disney productions, including films, musicals and other properties. Unless you've been completely out of touch with popular culture, are devoid of sentimentality, or have been assaulted by a Disney theme park character, you will find more than one warm and fuzzy moment in this show.

The Disney canon as represented here reaches as far back as 1930's animated short subject The Shindig ("Minnie's Yoo-Hoo"), and spans the decades since, through material from much more recognizable animated and non-animated films, such as Snow White, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Mary Poppins, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King. Even a song from last year's Home on the Range is included, plus one from the Disney theme park attraction, "The Tiki Room." A well-integrated part of American culture, the songs from Disney properties probably conjure up some pretty wistful memories for most; you may feel all mushy inside hearing songs from beloved childhood films or the lullabies you sang to your children when they were young. Unfortunately, the Disney culture is laced with commercialism, and you may find yourself expecting to hear what Superbowl athlete is going to Disneyworld when the show ends with a heartfelt "When You Wish Upon a Star." All in all, this is good, clean Disney (is there any other kind?), presented unapologetically as a collection of highlights of what are, for many, some of the great G-rated songs of all time.

The setup is simple, and is shown by body language and through song; there is very little dialogue. Four singers, who go by first names only, are in a recording studio. They are accompanied by an orchestra and a quartet of four supporting singers, who have no names at all. Each of the four principals has a slight character structure, making this more than just a concert, but it's the wispiest throughline you can imagine. Kristen (played by Ashley Brown) is a newcomer to the world of recording. She arrives at the studio first and is reassured by the unseen Recording Engineer (the voice of Richard Easton) that all will go well. Soon, Kristen is joined by Julian (Brian Sutherland) and Diane (Emily Skinner), more mature performers who have an obvious "history" with each other, as Diane is a little antagonistic toward Julian. The fourth member is young, self-confident Nick. The voice of the Recording Engineer quickly cautions to "check all of your personal baggage at the door," and, of course, the two couples pair off happily at the end of the show.

All four cast members are excellent singers, and the four members of the "Quartet" (Meredith Inglesby, Andy Karl, Tyler Maynard, and Keewa Nurullah) are also very talented, in both song and dance and in the kind of happy movement and gesturing you might expect to accompany Disney songs. It's all put together on a slick, grayscale set (by Robert Brill) of walls of sound tiles plus two moveable three-level structures to house the excellent orchestra and a large collection of boom mikes. Superb lighting by Natasha Katz allows the simple set to evoke different atmospheres. Costumes by Gregg Barnes match the white-to-black gradient palette of the set, and are appropriate to the figure of each performer. All of this rather monochromatic setting and minimal staging allows the true stars - the songs - to really shine. Surprisingly, the post-curtain call "Bare Necessities" number shows the entire cast in garish, red and orange glittery outfits that are really pretty awful.

Andy Karl, Tyler Maynard, Emily Skinner, Ashley Brown, Andrew Samonsky, Brian Sutherland, Keewa Nurullah, and Meredith Inglesby

The songs are thematically arranged in 15 "Sessions." All of the themes may not be immediately apparent to the viewer, but press materials offer interesting and sensible tidbits about the groupings. The theme of Sessions 1 and 2 is love songs (running the gamut from "Someday My Prince Will Come" to "Let's Get Together" from The Parent Trap to the "When Somebody Loved Me", touchingly presented by Sutherland). Session 3 has songs of flight (including the expected "You Can Fly!" and "A Whole New World," but also a beautiful presentation of "The Second Star to the Right"). Session 5 is about the tricks and gimmicks of sound production (and includes sound-enhanced vocals as the group sings "The Work Song" from Cinderella as mice). Some groupings are show-specific, with sessions devoted entirely to The Little Mermaid and Dumbo, and one combines songs from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Beauty and the Beast. The songs have been assigned to each singer quite appropriately, and all eight are able to show their talents very nicely.

As early as the Prologue, Ashley Brown shows that she has the perfect Disney heroine voice. Throughout the show, she sings all of the songs you might expect, as nearly every female lead in Disney history: "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes" (as Cinderella), "A Whole New World" (Jasmine), "Reflection" (Mulan), "I'm Wishing/One Song" (Snow White, in a duet with Emily Skinner), "Part of Your World" (Ariel), "Just Around the Riverbend" (Pocahontas), "A Change in Me" (Belle). Kristen appears as fresh-faced and virtuous as any character in Disneyland, and Brown presents her in an appealing way, with a solid and beautiful voice, stopping just short of saccharine. Having recently graduated from Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and having earned recognition for great work there, Brown is very well cast here, but it would be great to see what she could do with a more challenging acting assignment. Dressed in sleeveless white T-shirt and black leather pants, Andrew Samonsky doesn't overplay Nick's swaggering confidence. He delivers solid presentations of his songs, including "I Just Can't Wait to be King, "You Can Fly!", "Out There" (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and a showy, jazzy ""Ev'rybody Wants to Be a Cat".

Brian Sutherland (Sound of Music, 1776, Victor/Victoria on Broadway) and Emily Skinner (Side Show, The Full Monty, Dinner at Eight) have well known reputations among theatregoers, and each brings a maturity and ease to their performances which brings the cast together nicely on duets and group numbers. Sutherland is most solid on the show-ending "When You Wish Upon a Star," and Skinner delivers beautiful renditions of "Baby Mine" and "Colors of the Wind" and a superb western-style "Will the Sun Ever Shine Again?" (Home on the Range) - the latter, one of the true highlights of the show.

The young quartet are energetic and talented. All are fine singers and dancers, with noticeable standout moments provided by Andy Karl and Tyler Maynard.

There is some gimmick work on a few songs, to varied comedic success. "I Wan'na Be Like You," with Sutherland and Samonsky acting like monkeys, and "Poor Unfortunate Souls" with glowing mike cords and other lighting used in an attempt to evoke an undersea atmosphere don't work very well, but the multi-language presentation of "Be Our Guest" (with subtitles) is energetic and clever.

Music support is provided superbly by the talented orchestra, conducted by Marco Paguia, and satisfying orchestrations by Danny Troob. An unnamed sax player joins the cast to provide great solo work on "Pink Elephants on Parade."

A double disk cast recording is being made in January, with a release date of March. Pre-order forms are provided at the theater.

Disney's On the Record continues at the Benedum Center through November 28. Tickets are available at the Box Office at Theater Square, online at www.pgharts.org and by calling (412)456-6666.

Photo: Joan Marcus © Disney Theatrical Productions

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-- Ann Miner

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