By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
What must go on offstage at Disney's On the Record? Eight singers and nine musicians populate this sickeningly cheerful revue of more than 60 songs plucked from 75 years of movies from the mouse factory. Now playing at the Music Hall at Fair Park, the touring production already has crisscrossed the interstates of this great land for many months. Night after night, they have to summon the will to go out on that big stage and put across numbers written for cartoon characters. Who could blame them if, after the curtain goes down, they wipe the pageant-wide smiles off their faces and smoke some opium just to dull the pain?
Real talent is abundant among the peppy ensemble. They lend lovely, well-trained voices to generic dreck such as "Reflection" from 1998's Mulan and "Will the Sun Ever Shine Again" from last year's unmemorable Home on the Range. The songs that do register among Disney's greatest hits--"When You Wish Upon a Star" (from 1940's Pinocchio) and "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" (1946's Song of the South)--they sing with the earnestness of monks performing Gregorian chants.
But beneath the glazed expressions, the view through the opera glasses reveals there's just the tiniest hint of a sneer now and then on the faces of the senior performers, Brian Sutherland and Kaitlin Hopkins. When the ensemble lines up for another booming chorus of "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" or "Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee," they exchange quick glances that seem to say, "For this we went to Juilliard?"
The whole ghastly affair, directed and choreographed by Robert Longbottom, unfolds without plot, characters or much in the way of graceful segues from one song to the next. They just march on and off, singing their brains out while simultaneously smiling ear to ear and jutting their elbows in rhythm like plucky toy soldiers. They sell it all to the back row, singing BIG and LOUD. And when they're not whistling while they work, there's so much mugging going on it could affect local crime statistics.
The flimsiest of gimmicks frames the show. Scenic designer Robert Brill has created an enormous gray egg carton meant to represent the inside of some Brobdingnagian recording studio. The ensemble spends an inordinate amount of time shuttling four fake rolling boom mikes around the stage, each the size of a construction crane. They pretend to sing into them. The musicians occupy stacked cubes upstage, like under-lit Hollywood Squares.
It's a Lawrence Welk-y tribute to Walt, tunes grouped into subsets of love songs, comedy patter and ballads. We hear cuts from The Jungle Book (where cast members must scoot around, swinging their arms like chimps, poor dears), Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, Toy Story and Toy Story 2, Peter Pan, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Lady and the Tramp, The Aristocats, Mary Poppins, Pocahontas, Tarzan, Dumbo, Beauty and the Beast and others.
The lack of spectacle, the dearth of clips and the length of the show--two hours and 10 minutes--make it a long haul. Lots of families bailed at intermission on opening night (when the curtain went up 20 minutes late). Some tiptoed up the aisle before that.
Those who stay for all of Disney's On the Record stagger out after a glitzy finale of "A Spoonful of Sugar." Since the whole show feels like being force-fed gumdrops, that one seems like piling on.
If only there were more moments like the one deep in Act 2 when they take turns singing "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beastin German, French, Japanese, Swedish and Hebrew. This is the one and only time a screen drops down from the rafters to show some clips from the movie in question. Yes, like the common cold, Disney's reach is universal. Which brings to mind "It's a Small World After All." Let's see, how does that one go again?
From the first scene in David Auburn's smart script, the characters and their connections promise fascinating possibilities. There's Robert, the middle-aged math prodigy from the University of Chicago whose mind has slipped over into madness. His brilliant daughter Catherine carries the math gene but fears that at 25, the same age Robert was when he first "went bughouse," she may also be in danger of losing her grip on reality. Her older sister Claire returns home for a family funeral to find Catherine, who has devoted years to caring full time for their father, deeply depressed. Hal, a budding Ph.D. student who idolizes Robert, intrudes on the scene. He is determined to comb through more than 100 books of the professor's handwritten notes, which he hopes might yield a "proof" that could vault him into the academic stratosphere. When he finds one, the question becomes, who wrote it?
Though the play features just four people, most scenes involve only two, which certainly simplifies things. But Auburn expertly tinkers with the linear structure of his storytelling, giving a dreamy quality to the time and space each scene occupies. We're never quite sure, until deep into a scene, whether we're in present day or years before, or even if all those speaking are alive or dead. The surprises are wonderful.
The small cast turns in impressive, if somewhat quirky, performances. As Catherine, young Jordan Cole, a recent UT-Arlington theater grad, bears a strong resemblance to Mary Louise Parker, who originated the role on Broadway. She's not nearly so annoyingly nasal and mannered, however, and that's a good thing. Cole camouflages her prettiness under floppy hair and shapeless sweaters, allowing her shoulders to soften with the exhausted defeat of a younger sister who's had to bear the burden of a sick parent for far too long. This is a big role for a young actress, and Cole has a firm grasp on its subtleties.
As Hal, the whiz kid, David Wilson-Brown, who's acted recently at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas and Theatre Britain, is as handsome as a young John Saxon. He allows Hal to mature as the play progresses, and his seduction scene with Cole comes off as tender and spontaneous.
Caitlin Tiffany Glass makes a believable, if rigid, older sister. Steven Alan McGaw's Southern twang might be a little thick for Robert, a lifelong Chicago resident, but that's easily overlooked in his otherwise strong performance.
Don't be put off by the math. Playwright Auburn displays a lively and offbeat sense of the absurd. When Hal returns from an academic conference, he tells Catherine he's exhausted from hanging out with the hard-core super-geeks: "It was 48 straight hours of partying, drinking, drugs, conferences and papers."
They do toss out some brainy jargon about game theory and algebraic geometry, but this play is more about relationships and delicate aspects of love, self-sacrifice and trust, the very things that add up to make a life worth living.