Disney-themed show playing in Toronto is “a welcome spoonful of sugar”
Theatre in Toronto is a largely downtown enterprise, but I was happy to make the trek uptown to a venue I’d grown up five minutes away from and always wondered about, the Zion Cultural Centre, to see the Civic Light-Opera Company perform “A Disney Spectacular!”
The show, performed in a small, historic former church, chronicles Walt Disney’s involvement with the company’s productions, from the very beginnings of Steamboat Willie to Mary Poppins, the last film he oversaw before his death.
If you have even an ounce of irony in your heart, you may not warm to the production. The piece is for those who believe in Disney’s vision of “A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” or, more importantly, of a great big beautiful yesterday of loving nostalgia. However, the brassy, charming community theatre vibe and a group of performers giving their all may be a welcome spoonful of sugar.
One thing about the show that is admirable is its narrative and pacing. Interweaving stories about Walt and the history of his work via fatherly narrator Eric Botosan with songs and medleys, scenes move at a fast clip and the energy never lets up or flags. There are no strings (or awkward pauses) to hold it down, and there’s no time for boredom. It incorporates a whopping 59 songs or parts thereof, a good mix of standards and lesser known works that help you appreciate the lyrical dexterity of Disney’s stable of writers. My guest, who grew up during this period, said it was like fondly revisiting her childhood.
The singing, acting, and even word memorization are highly variable among the cast (though, to be fair, there are a LOT of words). Caroline Moro-Delicandro’s soprano is the best of the bunch vocally, but things do come together in the group numbers, and most of the actors have at least one chance to shine.
There are some balance issues with the level of mugging, which ranges from extreme and turned-up-to-eleven to tentative, nervous, or blank. This is magnified when the show is at its most saccharine, and highlights the fact that it’s really quite difficult for adults to play eager, small children without awkward and uncomfortable results.
However, oddly, for a show that’s about sweetness and good cheer, many of the most effective parts come when the cast gets a little dark, sad, or wistful: David Haine’s sinister snake in The Jungle Book’s “Trust In Me,” the group “Monstro the Whale” number from Pinocchio (complete with booming evil laughter), one of Mickey Brown’s sultry alto numbers, the winkingly choreographed “Ugly Bug Ball,” or Walt’s favourite, the simple “Tuppence a Bag” from Mary Poppins. Things pick up well in the second half, with the cast more comfortably settling into their roles, and there’s even a special guest star.
Like the show’s pacing, the costumes also work overtime, with almost as many changes as numbers, impressively outfitting the crew in faithful representations of everything from personalized Mouseketeer sweaters to a trio of feuding Snow Whites to Cinderella’s transformational ensemble. The set covers the “Bear Necessities,” but is similarly (though less successfully) gauged to ensure we never stop having something to look at in the form of a crazy quilt of garish Disney fabrics and a painting of that famous castle.
I did wonder about the need to outfit one of the entirely-white cast in a stereotypical Native American headdress and getup in the Peter Pan segment, particularly as it came so soon after the glancing acknowledgement of the “controversial” nature of the Song of the South segment. It’s not the show’s responsibility to criticize Disney’s legacy, necessarily, and it was certainly a faithful representation of Peter Pan’s portrayal, but it could have been avoided.
The biggest danger of this production is that you’ll want to sing along, but, as the program points out, “This is LIVE THEATRE, not a beer garden,” so you’ll have to wait until the end.
Is this a perfect show? No. Are there things to criticize? Sure. But are both the actors and the audience having a good time, “With a Smile and a Song”? Absolutely.
- A Disney Spectacular! plays through December 20th, 2015 at the Zion Cultural Centre (1650 Finch Avenue East). Performances are Wednesdays at 7pm, Thursday-Saturday at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm, with an additional 2pm performance on Saturday, December 19th.
- Tickets are $28 (HST included) for all seats, and can be purchased by calling (416) 755-1717 or online.
Photo of Adam Lawrence, Katie Richardson, Caroline Moro-Dalicandro and David Haines provided by the company