There is no question in my mind, that of all Disney’s animated film to Broadway adaptations, Aladdin is the most thoroughly successful. For The Lion King stage adaptation, Julie Taymor offered eye-popping spectacle and stagecraft in service to a flimsy story and even flimsier characters. Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s first Broadway venture, was fun and dazzling but only a ride vehicle away from being a theme park attraction. The less said about the misguided Tarzan and missed opportunities of The Little Mermaid the better.
Aladdin is pure, old-fashioned musical comedy, and it works at all levels. On Broadway, the show was a delightful surprise, and happily, everything that made it so much fun is present and accounted for in the lavish national touring production now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season.
There’s a reason Aladdin is Disney’s best animation-to-stage effort, and that reason is Tony Award-winning director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw. His work on shows like The Book of Mormon and Spamalot have honed his ability to bring just the right balance of comedy, razzmatazz, and heart to Aladdin’s bag of tricks.
Nicholaw’s success with Aladdin, now in its fourth year on Broadway and with the national tour, which launched earlier this year, has everything to do with his light, energetic touch and his ability to find humor that can appeal to children and adults.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Disney’s Aladdin continues through Jan. 7 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$213 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.
The “mane” question is this: after nearly 20 years, does Disney’s The Lion King, now the highest grossing Broadway show of all time, still have any roar left? Based on the touring production that has settled into SHN’s Orpheum Theatre for a two-month run through the holidays, the answer is a qualified yes.
From the outset, when the 1994 animated hit leaped to the stage in 1997, the strength of the production has rested solely on director Julie Taymor’s vision for adapting cartoon to live theater. Rather than rely solely on blockbuster special effects, Taymor and her creative team leaned in the direction of traditional and inventive puppetry, gorgeous (sometimes surprising) costumes and masks that rarely cover a performer’s face. The result is something that feels highly theatrical and imaginative but also remains true to the movie, which is a simplified spin on Hamlet set in the African savannah. The score, primarily by Elton John (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics), has a sweet poppy appeal (“Hakuna Matata”, “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” the majestic “The Circle of Life”). But the real heft of the show’s music comes from Lebo M, a South African composer whose contributions, including the rousing Act 2 opener “One by One” and the show’s best number, “He Lives in You (Reprise),” lend an authenticity and uncommon beauty to the Broadway trimmings.
Having made over a billion dollars worldwide, The Lion King is a massive industry built on solid, crowd-pleasing craftsmanship. The show, at 2 1/2 hours, is a little slow, and pacing in this tour can be patchy. At Wednesday’s opening-night performance, there was some unfortunately persistent audio feedback in Act 1 that was followed, about 30 minutes in, by a five-minute break while technical issues were addressed. Not what you expect from a show where top ticket price is over $200, but hey, live theater is truly live.
The spectacle of The Lion King remains mostly undimmed. The opening procession of The Circle of Life still packs a punch, even if the animal parade seems less full than it once was, and the quieter moments in the show – the lionesses in mourning, the grasslands (in the form of enormous hats) swaying in the wind, Simba’s cris de coeur “Endless Night” under the stars – tend to be more powerful than the noisier numbers. The hyenas’ song “Chow Down” has always been a lowlight of the show and is especially so here.
It’s interesting to see The Lion King in the midst of this nightmare election season. Scar, the egotistical, power-hungry villain, seems awfully familiar, and his grab at power just for the sake of power and his wanton destruction of the pride lands to fuel his own needs, seems a stern warning. The kids who grew up with The Lion King both on film and on stage are of voting age now. Let’s hope its lesson to keep the circle of life healthy and free of narcissistic villains intent on destruction.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Disney’s The Lion King continues through Dec. 31 at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $55-$228 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.
Newsies that unlikely Broadway hit that started out as a flop movie musical, isn’t so much about groundbreaking theater as it is a sterling example of how efficient Disney can be at creating solid, broadly appealing entertainment.
The Broadway production closed last fall, but the tour dances on. If ever there was a show meant for the road, it’s Newsies, a high-energy, stick-it-to-the-man ode to unions of all kind (labor, romantic, brotherly). Now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season, Newsies is the definition of crowd pleaser.
You can feel the machinery working here as Harvey Fierstein amps up and fills out the bare-bones movie screenplay about New York news boys who rebelled against money-grubbing Joseph Pulitzer in 1899. He dutifully provides a strong, intelligent young woman (absent from the movie), raises the dramatic stakes for the leading characters and does his best to make the boys themselves more than their identifying features (Crutchie has a crutch, Spot has a big arm mole, Specs wears…well, you get it). Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Jack Feldman tinker with the movie songs (which are quite good) and a few more, the best of which is the lively “Watch What Happens.”
Director Jeff Calhoun adopts a strategy of speed and motion to keep Newsies leaping through its 2 1/2 hours. There’s hardly a dull moment (except maybe for Pulitzer getting a shave), and much of the show’s entertainment value comes down to the choreography by Christopher Gattelli. These aren’t really news boys, after all. They’re Broadway dancers, and boy oh boy (oh, boys!) do they get to demonstrate their talent. From the gymnastics of “Carrying the Banner” and “Seize the Day” to the tap of “King of New York,” these young men are fountains of twirling testosterone. Acrobatic, graceful and aggressive, these dancers are the show’s motor, and though the plot of the little guys against the big bazillionaire bully has its moments, it’s the sheer joy that comes through the dancing that makes Newsies memorable.
Dan DeLuca makes for a charismatic leading man as Jack Kelly, the de facto unionizer of the Newsies, and what’s a downtrodden hero without a pipe dream? For Jack, that translates to dreams of life out West in Santa Fe. DeLuca has a strong voice tinged with modern pop stylings. He and Stephanie Styles have a nice chemistry, which helps tone down the schmaltz in their duet, “Something to Believe I,” one of those love songs where they actually have to stop singing so they can kiss. Twice. Styles’ best moment is “Watch What Happens,” which, in addition to being an ode to journalism (yay, newspapers!), captures youthful, if naive, enthusiasm: “Their mistake is they got old. That is not a mistake we’ll be making. No sir, we’ll stay young forever.”
Youth itself is practically a character on this stage. “Newsies” revels in the idealism and, especially, the energy of youth. That’s why the anthems – “Seize the Day,” “Once and For All” – have such power. It’s like Les Miz lite with less flag waving and more dancing on newsprint.
The only really disappointing thing about Newsies is its ending. After all those stirring anthems, the strike is resolved and their are reprises of “Seize the Day” and “King of New York.” No powerful ballad or chorale to capture the moment or perhaps consider the future. Of course the finale/curtain call is overloaded with more hyperkinetic dancing, which is fun, of course, but by this time in the evening, we’re craving something more than melodrama, leaps and a relentlessly cheerful ensemble.
It’s all slick and efficient and impeccably performed – entertaining to be sure, but sometimes big, bold headlines aren’t enough.
I interviewed composer Alan Menken and cast member (and Bay Area native) Julian DeGuzman for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.
FOR MORE INFORMATION Newsies continues through March 15 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$250. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.
Madeline Trumble (center, blue dress) as Mary Poppins, Con O’Shea (center, gold vest) as Bert and Tonya Thompson (center, orange dress) as Miss Corry perform Matthew Bourne’s rousing choreography of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” in the touring proudction of Mary Poppins at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre. Below: Trumble and O’Shea step in time. Photos by Jeremy Daniel
Some are Shakespeare purists. Or Chekhov purists. Or Star Wars purists. Their simple message is: don’t mess with the original. I happen to be a Mary Poppins purist. Not the original P.L. Travers books – I found them harsh and far from enchanting. No, I’m a purist when it comes to the 1964 Disney film that boasted two remarkable things (and countless other simply wonderful things): the screen debut of a perfectly cast Julie Andrews in the title role and a thoroughly charming original score by brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman. Andrews and the Shermans all walked away with Academy Awards and, several years later when, at 4 years old, I saw a re-release of the film in my first time out at a movie theater, it also won my lifelong devotion.
All of that personal preamble is to say that I approached the Disney/Cameron Mackintosh stage adaptation with cautious enthusiasm. The show opened in London in 2004 before heading to Broadway in 2006, where it closed last March.
I saw the show on Broadway and pretty much hated it. The lavish sets and costumes by Bob Crowley were jaw dropping, and some of co-director Matthew Bourne’s choreography was fun. But what ruined it all for me was the new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe and the damage done to some of the original Sherman songs from the movie. Another big turn off was the bizarre direction of the actress playing Mary Poppins to play the magical governess as if she were a freaky android with overly perfect elocution and a personality devoid of charm and warmth. Could director Richard Eyre be to blame? I had to think so.
At long last, the touring Mary Poppins has arrived in San Francisco (in a reversal of the usual pattern, the show made it to San Jose long before San Francisco) as part of the SHN season at the Orpheum Theatre.
Somewhat simplified and stripped down for the tour, this production (directed by Anthony Lyn) is actually more rewarding than the Broadway version. It’s still a hodge-podge mess of the movie and Travers and pop psychology and strained efforts to make something unique out of something that was already unique. But somehow there’s some breathing room here for some charm to squeak through.
At the helm of the charm brigade is Berkeley native Madeline Trumble as Mary Poppins. This Mary actually has a twinkle in her eye and some warmth in her smile. There’s still something arch in the way the character is directed, but Trumble, who sings with the lilt of an operetta star, conveys a sense of loving mischief, which is useful in the role.
Trumble gets some assistance in the charm department from Con O’Shea-Creal as Bert, the sidewalk artist/chimney sweep. His dance moves in the “Step in Time” number (mostly intact from the movie) steal the show, and his much-heralded tap dance around the proscenium frame really is breathtaking.
The best moments in the show involve the original songs. The aforementioned “Step in Time” is a showcase for Bourne’s choreography, as is “Jolly Holiday” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” which is by far the most successful adaptation of an original song. The spirit of the original is still there and used as a foundation, while a song like “Spoonful of Sugar,” now set in a ridiculously destroyed kitchen, just flounders.
Among the cut songs are “Sister Suffragette, “The Life I Lead,” “Stay Awake,” “I Love to Laugh” and “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.” In their place are mostly dull songs for Mrs. Banks (“Being Mrs. Banks”), Mr. Banks (“Precision and Order,” which is not nearly as crisp as “The Life I Lead”) and Mr. Banks’ childhood nanny, Miss Andrew (“Brimstone and Treacle”), as well as a loathsome nursery nightmare (“Playing the Game”) and a too-vague stab at inspiration that’s nowhere near as eloquent or inspiring as “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” (“Anything Can Happen”). The new material is respectful and, on paper, it makes sense. But the songs just don’t have the panache or music hall enthusiasm of the Sherman originals, especially when they sit side by side.
With my initial horror at the new songs/adapted songs behind me, I was able to watch the touring production with bemusement. I don’t like the new material any better, but I did admire the touring cast and the enthusiasm with which they approach the material. Broadway seemed cold and machine-like, but the tour has some life in it, and the opening-night audience, which was full of families with children, seemed delighted. Perhaps the young people who experience Mary Poppins first through the stage version will look at the movie and only see what’s missing or dated, whereas I will always see the movie as the purest form – sorry, Mrs. Travers – of the Poppins magic.
FOR MORE INFORMATION Mary Poppins continues through May 12 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets start at $35. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.
Jelani Remy as Simba and the ensemble in “He Lives in You” from the touring production of Disney’s The Lion King. Photo by Joan Marcus
According to the Wall Street Journal, the King really is the King of Broadway.
News came down last month that Disney’s The Lion King is now Broadway’s all-time highest grossing show. It’s a title the regal hit stole from The Phantom of the Opera. The cumulative gross is staggering: $853,846,062 and counting.
Timing of the news couldn’t have come at a better time. Lion King‘s Tony Award-winning director, Julie Taymor, happened to be in town with producer and president of Disney Theatrical Productions President, Thomas Schumacher. They were with a small group at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville to promote the return of The Lion King to San Francisco this November as part of the SHN season at the Orpheum Theatre. That’s the same theater where the show made its Bay Area debut in 2004 and ran for 43 weeks.
Schumacher, a San Mateo native, was working in Disney’s animation division when The Lion King first began to make noise. “I realize I’ve been working in way or another on The Lion King, practically on a daily basis for 21 years,” Schumacher said. He remembers reading a four –page treatment called King of the Beasts, which was sort of like an animated National Geographic special. The movie, after the usual years of revisions and rewrites, went on to become an international smash movie with a musical score by Elton John and Tim Rice.
When talk turned to the possibility of bringing The Lion King to the stage as Disney had done successfully with Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s chairman at the time, Michael Eisner, whom Schumacher called a “brilliant but nutty guy,” wasn’t at all enamored of the lion idea. Schumacher remembers him saying something like, “Andrew Lloyd Webber already did a musical with cats.”
But Schumacher said he had a great idea. He called up that great idea, who happened to be Taymor, the rather brilliant off-Broadway and international opera director who is one of the last people you’d associate with a Disney musical based on an animated film.
Taymor remembered thinking it wasn’t all that much of a stretch to think of her applying her artistic talents to the Disney project. The film, after all, had a dark beauty to it. “When you think about it, the film is about a young child witnessing the death of his father.”
Having worked in Asia and absorbed many aspects of theater and puppetry there, Taymor was intrigued by the challenge and was delighted that Schumacher and his colleagues seemed open to her aesthetic.
“I don’t think we could open The Lion King today,” Schumacher said. “It took a certain renegade spirit to do it, and we wouldn’t have the same freedom today.”
When The Lion King opened on Broadway in the fall of 1997, it didn’t look like anything else in New York. It still doesn’t. With its extraordinary puppetry, masks, costumes and theatrical effects – many of which are centuries old – it’s an original fusion of international theater techniques combined with Taymor’s overriding vision, which makes it all feel of a piece.
The signature theme of the evening, visually speaking, is the circle – “The Circle of Life” is the centerpiece song of the show (and the basis for its jaw-dropping opening scene) – a theme you see in everything from the rising of the sun to the spinning of wheels as puppet deer leap across the stage on little wagons.
“It would be easy to do a sunrise projection,” Taymor explained. “But that would not be live theater. I wanted to stay away from anything like film. This was already a film. So our sun is bamboo and silk. Our audience knows that, but as it rises, light shimmering across it, it’s filled with spirit and soul.”
She also described the show as “magic and toys,” which are “the spirit of theater. It’s in our DNA going way back. It’s not about thinking. It’s about feeling.”
Taymor calls working on The Lion King “the most enjoyable work experience I’ve had…and here I am 15 years later.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Disney’s The Lion King runs Nov. 1 through Jan. 13 at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. Tickets are available as part of SHN’s 2012-13 season package. Subscriptions range from $197.50 to $567.50. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.
Tony Award-winning Broadway star Lea Salonga brings her cabaret act to the Fairmont’s Venetian Room as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Photos courtesy of Lea Salonga
It’s the day after the Richmond-Ermet AIDS Foundation, and Lea Salonga, visiting family in the Bay Area, is still glowing because, at the curtain call, she got to hold hands with Shirley Jones.
“Some of the 20somethings there had no idea who Shirley Jones was,” Salonga says. “My jaw dropped on the floor. Come on, people! Watch a rerun of The Partridge Family at the very least. See Oklahoma! or Carousel! She has done Broadway and film and television and she still looks and sounds amazing. If you don’t know Shirley Jones, woe be to you. Those of us from New York all know who she is.”
Salonga is no slouch herself. A Tony winner for Miss Saigon, she is married, has a 5-year-old daughter and makes her home in Manila, in her native Philippines.
She continues to work on stage – her most recent Broadway show was the revival of Les Miserables from 2006 to 2008. Though she’s performed in concert since she was a kid, she’s doing the more mature thing now. With her debut last year at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, she’s officially a cabaret chanteuse.
She’ll make her San Francisco cabaret debut later this month as the season opener for Bay Area Cabaret, now in its second season in the Fairmont Hotel’s venerable Venetian Room. Her original date on Sept. 16 sold out quickly, so a second show, at 5pm on Sept. 17 has been added.
Earlier this year, Salonga turned 40. If it seems she should have hit that mark a while ago, it’s a testament to her already storied career, which became an international success when she was cast as the title role of Miss Saigon at 17.
“Around my birthday, I looked in the mirror and said, ‘If that’s what 40 looks like, bring on 50!’” Salonga says. “I think getting older is great. Actresses worry about people knowing their ages, and I understand that because people are judgmental. But people know my story. I can’t lie about my age. I’m primarily a singer, so age doesn’t matter. The 40s are wonderful so far. You’re young enough to enjoy life, old enough to kick some ass and no one questions you.”
Salonga received some glowing reviews for her Carlyle cabaret shows, and she recently released a live CD, recorded in that lovely Manhattan boite, called Lea Salonga: The Journey So Far. The disc surveys her entire career, including her gigs as the singing voice for Disney princesses Jasmine (in Aladdin) and Mulan (in the movie of the same name).
Recently dubbed a Disney Legend, Salonga and fellow princess voices Anika Noni Rose (The Princess and the Frog), Jodi Benson (The Little Mermaid) and Paige O’Hara (Beauty and the Beast), received awards and sang their signature songs.
Salonga’s daughter was in princess heaven at the ceremony, scoring autographs from all the famous ladies – including her own mother. “She was looking up at me saying, ‘Mommy sign my book?’ I said, ‘Honey, I live with you. I can sign your book any time.’ But I thought that was sweet. I actually matter to my daughter!”
In addition to her concert and cabaret work, Salonga is heading back to the musical theater stage with a show called Allegiance with music and lyrics by Jay Kuo and a book by Kuo and Lorenzo Thione. The show, set during the Japanese internment during World War II, will open at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in the summer of 2012.
The musical had a workshop in New York earlier this summer, and the cast included George Takei and Telly Leung. Salonga says the workshop “went really well.” And the really great thing, she says: “My mother really liked it and loved the music. She said based on the music alone the show will fly. Believe me, she minces no words if she thinks something is bad. But this is a show she enjoyed. We’re all excited about the show. I consider myself a transplanted New Yorker, so I’d be very happy if the show ended up there.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lea Salonga is in concert as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season at 8pm Sept. 16 (SOLD OUT) and at 5pm Sept. 17 in the Fairmont Hotel’s Venetian Room, 950 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $60 general with discounts for subscribers and those younger than 18. Call 415-392-4400 or visit www.bayareacabaret.org.
Here’s Lea Salonga singing “Reflection” from Mulan at the Disney Legends award ceremony last month at the D23 Expo.
EXTENDED THROUGH JULY 16! What would Walt think? Working for the Mouse, Trevor Allen’s one-man recollection about being a costumed character in the Magic Kingdom, returns to Berkeley’s Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs
About nine years ago, Trevor Allen lifted the veil on an operation so shrouded in secrecy and intrigue that the merest glimpse inside set people salivating. He revealed what it was actually like to be inside a costumed character in Disneyland.
Oh, yes, This is deeply inside stuff. And sweaty. And hilarious. It’s what you call a theatrical experience bursting with character.
Allen’s autobiographical solo show, Working for the Mouse, premiered at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre in 2002 then transferred to San Francisco. Now Allen is reviving the show for Impact and his own Black Box Theatre at La Val’s Subterranean.
The estimable Nancy Carlin has taken over the directing reins from Kent Nicholson, and the revised show is sharper and funnier than ever.
Allen hits the stage ready for battle in shorts, knee pads (one of the characters is a pint-sized guy, so there’s a lot of time on bended knee) and a vintage “Zoo Crew” T-shirt (that’s how Disneyland’s costumed atmosphere characters are described) emblazoned with Jiminy Cricket. Like any good Disney employee, he’s also wearing his name tag.
We learn that at age 17, Allen left his hometown in the Bay Area to find seasonal work in Disneyland. Throughout the 70-minute show he glances off the deeper theme of not wanting to grow up, but he’s also beginning to flex his young actor muscles. His dream is to be a “face character,” which is to say a character like Peter Pan or Prince Charming who is not engulfed in a full, furry body suit. The face characters also tend to have what every actor desires: voice clearance. They get to talk to the guests rather than remaining a mute sweat bomb in a giant head and stuffed body.
We watch as Allen progresses through the character infrastructure. First he’s Pluto, then pirate Mr. Smee, then a talking Mad Hatter, and we can see him maturing and opening his eyes to some of what the real world – even in its Magic Kingdom form – has in store for him. He gets hazed by the veterans in the department, has his heart broken and gets his best, most creative intentions trampled by the corporate machine.
Throughout, Allen is a dynamic, highly appealing performer, attacking this coming-of-age story with unflagging energy and crack comic timing. Director Carlin has helped Allen warm up the show and find even more edge to the humor. This is not a Disney-bashing experience, though it certainly could be. Even rabid fans of Disneyland (consider me guilty) will savor Allen’s tales of misbehavior, mismanagement and misbegotten Matterhorn sex.
One of the things that tickled me the first time I saw the show was Allen’s Ed Wynn impression – a necessity for anyone playing Disney’s version of the Mad Hatter – and that delight is still very much present here. Another huge piece of enjoyment, especially for Disneyphiles, is the sound design by Cliff Caruthers, which is filled with wonderfully incisive references to rides and movies.
Allen has honed Working for the Mouse to an impressive level, but that’s not all. There are more tales to be told. If the show leaves you wanting more, and it will, check out Allen’s book-in-progress at www.workingforthemouse.com.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Trevor Allen’s Working for the Mouse, a co-production of Impact Theatre and Black Box Theatre, continues an extended run through July 16 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$20. Visit www.impacttheatre.com.
My love of things Disney is no secret, so imagine what a thrill it was to get a chance to talk with Disney songwriter Richard M. Sherman about his long-running rift with songwriting partner and brother Robert B. Sherman and about the just-released documentary about their lives and careers, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story, which was made by Richard’s son Gregory V. Sherman and Robert’s son Jeffrey C. Sherman. The cousins grew up mere blocks from one another in Beverly Hills but didn’t get to know each other until adults because their fathers did not socialize, nor did they allow their families to socialize.
I wrote a feature on Richard M. Sherman and the movie for the San Francisco Examiner. Read it here.
I also reviewed the movie (four stars) for the Examiner. Read it here.
Both pieces are pretty short, so here’s some bonus Richard M. Sherman.
On his and Bob’s love of Walt Disney: “We were under the wing of a genius. He pushed us that much further, gave us these giant assignments. We adored him, and he was fantastic to us. Let it never be said that Walt was just a figurehead. He was an inspiration to everyone he worked with and was totally a hands-on producer no matter who was directing, writing or composing.”
On his son and nephew collaborating on the film: “It’s another Sherman partnership. Fate has wonderful twists and turns. They came to us about five years ago and asked for permission to do the story of our careers and our life together. I thought, `Sounds good to me.’ I didn’t realize they were going to get so in depth. It’s really an intense documentary.”
On the lesser-known work: “There are songs in a lot of different pictures I’m fond of. I love Shelby Flint’s recording of `Do You Remember me?’ from Snoopy Come Home. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous recording. She sang it with all her heart. There are other obscure things I like: 1Tell Him Anything But Not That I Love Him’ from The Slipper and the Rose — that’s a very mature piece. We’ve written a lot of songs people don’t know. They tend to remember the funny, clever ones.”
On Busker Alley, a Broadway-bound musical that never got to Broadway: “It’s a great show. I’d love to see it re-mounted. I always keep a little prayer in my heart. Who knows? Tomorrow is another day. I’m an optimistic guy. Always have been. There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow!”
On a favorite memory: “It was the opening of Mary Poppins, a gigantic party. My folks were there, and when they went over to Walt, my dad said, `Thank you for the opportunity you’ve given my sons.’ Walt shook my dad’s hand and said, `Al, I want to thank you for your sons.'”
A man of character, Trevor Allen decided to put his character life behind him.
Having detailed what it’s really like to work as a costumed character in Disneyland in his popular solo show Working for the Mouse, Allen made a conscious decision to focus on his burgeoning career as a playwright. Mouse, under the direction of Kent Nicholson, had a great run at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre (and a transfer to the EXIT in San Francisco), but the time had come to hang up the ears and write.
He had abundant projects, including one about Albert Einstein with found-object puppeteer Liebe Wetzel, another about artificial intelligence that the Magic Theatre picked up for its New Media Festival and yet another assignment to write something for Playground.
The resulting plays, One Stone, The Nutshell and Tenders in the Fog respectively, were all well received but only Tenders ended up being produced (by San Jose Stage Company). Then came Zoo Logic and Lolita Road Trip, two more projects that generated readings and interest but, so far, no actual productions.
Rather than do the writerly thing and revel in despondency, San Francisco resident Allen headed back to the Magic Kingdom. For just a few jam-packed performances in the summer of 2005, he resurrected Working for the Mouse at Bus Barn Theatre in Los Altos. For those few shows, he traveled back in time to age 17. He was an acting student at UCLA (studying with “The Brady Bunch’s” Robert Reed, no less) and worked at Disneyland, first as Pluto, then as Capt. Hook’s first mate, Mr. Smee, then as various characters including Eeyore (from Winnie the Pooh), Friar Tuck (from Robin Hood) and Gideon (the mute cat from Pinocchio). He graduated to “face work,” meaning he wasn’t enclosed in plastic and fur, with the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland and actually got to utilize his improvisational skills when interacting with park guests.
A friend of Allen’s from Los Angeles encouraged him to come do Mouse at a small North Hollywood theater. “It’d sell out!” the friend said.
And Allen wondered, if he took the show to LA, if that is exactly what he’d be doing: selling out.
“I had considered taking the show to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, then I had to think about LA, and then I thought, `Do I really want to be the guy who does funny voices and plays Pluto and the Mad Hatter?'” Allen says over lunch at, yes it’s true, Pluto’s.
That’s when Allen’s wife, Theatre Bay Area magazine editor Karen McKevitt, said it was time to do something serious about Working for the Mouse. She pointed out that when he talked about his four years as a character in Disneyland, he always had fresh stories to tell that never made their way into the show. She landed on a solution: Turn the stories into a book utilizing the factual but entertaining writing style known as creative nonfiction.
Allen is currently hard at work on that book. Until he finds a publisher brave enough to weather the Disney waters, that book-in-progress is also a blog: www.workingforthemouse.com. This is the 21st century, after all.
“As a performer, you get immediate response from an audience,” Allen says. “You know when a story or a line works or doesn’t work. The same is true with the blog. You put it out there yourself – you don’t have to wait for someone to publish you. There’s no barrier between the artist and the audience anymore. I hear immediately from people, some who love Disney, some who hate it.”
The blog belies Allen’s theatrical roots because there’s a whole lot more available than chapters (called “mouse droppings”) of the upcoming book. There’s performance video and, to the author’s great delight, podcasts in which the actor gets to exercise his expertise with voice over narration.
“Now that I’m not writing for performance, I’m able to get into the heads of the other characters more,” he says. “Then turning that into audio is great fun.”
Working for the Mouse is, in many ways, Allen’s coming-of-age story. He was a 17-year-old San Jose native, somewhat naïve, getting a fast education about life in the real world. Backstage and after hours at Disneyland was sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but it was also more than that.
“It was a real education,” Allen says. “What I saw there, backstage and during work hours, was tragic, raw, funny and sad. From inside the costumes, you saw a parade of human tragedy going by in the guests. At a certain point after I had left the Disney bubble, it occurred to me, `Why is no one telling this story?'”
One answer is easy: because Disney will sue your pants off. They’ll cease and desist you so quickly you won’t know your Mickey from your Mouse.
“I’ve always thought that in the world of theater, the more controversial the better,” Allen says. “Freedom of speech is supposed to allow for that. But Big business has co-opted the place of religion and government in dictating what you can or can’t say. I’m of the school, as a playwright, a performer or a writer, you have to tell stories that haven’t been told, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
So far, response to the blog has been good. There’s even been some interest in reviving the one-man show, which Allen says he’d be happy to do, especially since working on the Mouse has given him new insights.
“This has been a process of rediscovery,” he says. “The arc of the show would likely remain unchanged, but I think I’m finding some other stories with some different resonance.”
Here’s a taste of Working for the Mouse, the show and the Web site:
Husband-and-wife team Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda follow up the success of Striking 12 with a new two-person musical, Long Story Short, a TheatreWorks production now at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.
The last time we got into the GrooveLily groove was about four years ago when TheatreWorks produced the group’s terrific holiday show/concert, Striking 12, a modern-day retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Matchgirl.
GrooveLily’s Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda, who also happen to be husband and wife, are back at TheatreWorks with a new show, but they will not be onstage singing and playing the way they were in Striking 12.
For Long Story Short Milburn and Vigoda provide music, lyrics and book (based on a play by David Schulner) for a two-person musical about Charles and Hope, an unlikely couple – he’s a Jewish man from New York, she’s an Asian-American woman from Los Angeles – and their relationship through the decades.
The show is a co-production with City Theatre in Pittsburgh and comes to Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Theatre after a successful run there.
One advantage of a co-production is two opening nights and some space in between to make some changes if necessary.
“We discovered things about the show you can only find out about in front of an audience,” Milburn says. “During previews in Pittsburgh, we saw several things we thought were hilarious get no reaction. And several things we thought were boring filler got guffawing, side-splitting laughter. Several songs we though were so-so got a huge reaction. We feel really blessed to be given the chance to do some re-writes between the close of the Pittsburgh run and the opening of the TheatreWorks run.”
During the run of Striking 12, Milburn and Vigoda forged a strong relationship with TheatreWorks and have been intimately involved with its new works program, where “Long Story Short” saw a fair amount of development.
“We were here a little under a year ago as part of the TheatreWorks writers’ retreat, and that was an incredibly fruitful time for us with new songs and new writing,” Vigoda explains. “That week alone I think we wrote and tossed a couple songs. It really helped us in the process of writing this.”
The actual writing of the show began in 2006 – after being commissioned by City Theatre — and by most new musical theater standards, the show was created incredibly quickly. Long Story Short also benefited from the development process in Pittsburgh, where the show was part of its Momentum Festival.
Milburn discovered Schulner’s play, An Infinite Ache, in a pile of scripts City Theatre had sent him with a goal of collaborating on a new musical with an established playwright. (The show stars Pearl Sun as Hope and Ben Evans as Charles, seen at right, photo by Suellen Fitzsimmons)
“As soon as I read the script, I knew this was the piece we could turn into a musical,” Milburn says. “What appealed to me first was the gimmick – the story actually has too much heart to call it a gimmick – but it’s the leaping forward in time without giving the audience any warning that a leap has happened, thus forcing the audience to keep up with the play. It’s a little confusing, but there’s always enough context to get what’s going on. You feel like you’re being taken for a very fast, very exciting roller coaster ride. It’s a little like science fiction without the science fiction – it’s a domestic time-travel story.”
Prior to writing this show, Vigoda and Milburn had been content writing for their band and performing. But lives change. The couple has a 3-year-old son, and Vigoda says the notion of creating a show and sending it out into the world without having to be in it has its appeal.
There are plenty of other irons in the creative fire for Milburn and Vigoda. They’ve written a musical version of the Disney-Pixar movie Toy Story for the Disney Cruise Line that is now being adapted to fill the stage of the Hyperion Theatre in Disney’s California Adventure, the sister park to Disneyland in Anaheim.
They’re also working on another musical for TheatreWorks: Ernest Shackleton Loves Me. The show began life as a one-woman show for Vigoda (who sings and plays a mean electric violin), and it’s about one modern-day woman’s special night in the company of the great arctic explorer. If all goes well, there’ll be a reading of that new show next June.
As for the couple’s band, GrooveLily (which also features Gene Lewin on drums), they report they’re in the midst of recording the next album, which is based on a show they created for Deaf West Theatre: Sleeping Beauty Wakes, which was performed bilingually, in American Sign Language and spoken English.
Long Story Short previews Wednesday, Dec. 3-5, opens Saturday, Dec. 6 and continues through Dec. 28 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $27-$65. Call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.