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When You Wish, The Story of Walt Disney – Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

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I couldn’t see it,” begins our narrator.  “Nobody could.”

That’s the voice of Roy Disney (Andy Umberger), brother to animator, producer, dreamer, and cultural icon, Walt Disney (Joey Sorge) talking of his brother’s plans for Disneyland, or “The riskiest place on Earth,” in the new musical When You Wish, The Story of Walt Disney, now playing at Phoenix Theatre until June 12.

In the way that Dickens described the very word Christmas as having something magical about it, movie-goers often feel that same sense of love and affection when it comes to the name Disney.  It’s no longer simply a family moniker; it’s akin to the very nature of movie magic and a promise of something wonderful still to come, as long as we wish upon a twinkling star and wait just a little.  The difference Walt Disney’s creations and stories have brought to our lives – not just in America but around the world – is immeasurable.

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Certainly, that’s how it is for writer Dean McClure who created When You Wish.  The show is clearly a labor of love, one that McClure has loved and labored over for several years.  Even though the show premiered in an earlier form three years ago in California, with more work and re-write after re-write, this new version now unveiled at the Phoenix can still be called a world premiere.

As the title suggests, When You Wish tells of the early days of America’s most famous Midwestern boy who thought big with a seemingly unlimited imagination that eventually proved something we’ve always wanted to believe: dreams really do come true.  As seen through brother Roy’s eyes, the musical takes us back to the beginning when young Walt (a role shared on alternate nights by Ross Nemeth and T.J. Rossi) would draw characters on toilet paper in lieu of anything better in the house to use, much to the annoyance of the rest of the family.

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Most of the story-telling conflicts of Walt’s rise to pioneer status occur in the show’s first half, culminating with the creation of a certain famous mouse and a big solo from Walt himself.  The second half is shorter with fewer songs and only a few hurdles for Disney to overcome before reaching the opening of the California theme park that closes the show.  It’s also here where the failings of McClure’s book and the overall production are evident.

Presumably, despite an approving nod from the Disney family to tell the story, the use of sound, music and imagery from the Disney vaults were either never granted or too expensive to buy.  However, director Larry Raben’s production does creative wonders when skirting around copyright issues.  Even though we catch glimpses of Walt’s 1920’s Alice Comedies projected on a back screen, his most famous creations are here presented more as character suggestions.  Even the image of Mickey is shown as a cut-out silhouette rather than a fully fleshed character.  Plus, during what should be the show’s inspirational climax, a ballet performed by characters representing the release of everything from 1941’s Pinocchio to 1955’s Lady and the Tramp, is unsuccessful despite Lee Martino’s outstanding choreography.  Without the ability to see Walt’s imagination come to life in the way we know how these characters look and the musical themes associated with them, the production can never fully satisfy.  It’s missing the Disney magic.

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McClure’s new score is enjoyable without being particularly memorable.  Often the songs, particularly the ballads, tend to evaporate the moment they conclude, though Debby Rosenthal’s title song When You Wish is quite enchanting and nicely sets the scene.

Casting is good.   Andy Umberger’s Roy proves a solid center to the production while Joey Sorge’s Walt, despite several dialog stumbles on opening night, creates an image of Disney that audiences will easily recognize and relate.  Sydney Marie Hawes continues to fulfill early promises, moving from a supporting player in the recent Phoenix Theatre production of Evita to a leading player as Walt’s wife, Lillian.  The proposal scene where Lillian basically talks Walt into asking for her hand in marriage is particularly effective; both funny and heartwarming.  Norman Large is also a standout in several supporting roles, though while his portrayal of Eduardo the conductor gets the laughs, the broad presentation of the squeaky voiced Frenchman appears more like a character from a different show.

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Technical credits are all worthy of recognition, from Alan Ruch’s musical direction, Cari Sue Smith’s excellent period and character costumes, Almir Lejic’s sound, Michael J. Eddy’s effective lighting, to Jonathan Infante’s scene-setting videos projected over Robert Kovach’s scenic design.  But it’s Lee Martino’s imaginative and challenging choreography, ably performed by the production’s professional ensemble that gives When You Wish its overall vitality.

As theatrically presented, Disney’s professional life, while full of conflict as he tried to overcome often insurmountable odds to find funding and get his ideas off the ground, comes across as a surprisingly tame tale.

Disney was a heavy smoker, a habit that in 1966 would eventually cost him his life.  His wife Lillian shared little to no interest in the movie industry.  Concerned of kidnapping, particularly after the Lindbergh affair, Disney hid his children from the press, plus he testified before HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Committee) and named three former animators as Communist agitators.  All of these events occurred within the time frame covered by the show, but none are part of the story.

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While facts in the musical are intact, like Disney’s own family-oriented story-telling approach, the show has the feel of a wish-fulfillment fantasy that omits many of the more interesting darker elements, concentrating only on the achievements of work.  In an edited form with another re-write, plus permission from the Disney organization to use its imagery and musical themes, When You Wish could be the kind of show seen at the world wide Disney parks.  The way it tells Disney’s story, things may be uncomplicated but they fall right in line with the organization’s positive style.  After all, in the early sixties, Walt took a stern, strict and borderline unpleasant magical nanny and redesigned her as upbeat, attractive and altogether agreeable while keeping the theme of the original stories intact.  Why not present Walt’s life in much the same way?  It’s not Broadway, not in its present form, but with modifications it could be perfect for a special, permanent theatrical exhibit at Disneyland to be enjoyed after a fun family day in the Magic Kingdom.

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For more regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the official Phoenix Theatre website.


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