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Charlie's In The House: Is There A Disney Saturation?

Now that our local summer theater season is over, there’s time for me to vent about one of my pet peeves – Disney musicals.

You know what I mean. I’m talking about any of the stage properties that Disney Theatrical seems to churn out every few years rehashing one of the media giant’s previous cartoons or feature films. Surely you’ve seen one of these cookie-cutter productions. You can’t turn around nowadays without tripping over one of these shows being produced by a high school drama club or a local theater company.

Those productions happen with such stunning regularity that you‘d almost think that the Disney folks were giving away their theatrical rights free with the purchase of a pair of day-passes to Disneyland.

It all started with a stage version of Beauty and the Beast on Broadway in the mid-1990s. Then came The Lion King, followed by The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan, Mary Poppins, The Little Mermaid, Newsies, Aladdin and so on. The most recent additions to the laundry list of Disney musicals are – naturally – Frozen and – oddly – Freaky Friday. What’s next? The Fox and the Hound?

The first problem with these Disney musicals is that they are being done to death. Take The Little Mermaid, for example. Please, take it!

(Sorry, old Henny Youngman joke. Couldn’t resist)

The first local production of The Little Mermaid that I know of was last year by Cache Theatre Company. More recently, the Four Seasons Theatre Company in Smithfield staged the same show in June. The Little Mermaid is also now playing simultaneously down at the Tuacahn Ampitheatre in St. George and at the Pickleville Playhouse over in Bear Lake. If I looked hard enough, I could probably find two more productions somewhere in Utah this summer. Can you say market saturation? I knew you could!

I’m not saying that there’s no artistic value in these Disney musicals. When I first saw the original Beauty and the Beast, I remember thinking that its soundtrack sounded more like a musical comedy than an animated feature. So I wasn’t greatly surprised when the show appeared on Broadway. Moreover, there’s no denying that the stage version of The Lion King is a magnificent spectacle with its exotic costuming and innovative puppets.

Nor am I offering criticism of any performer who gives his or her all to one of these shows. I’ve been told that the aforementioned production of The Little Mermaid by the Four Seasons Theater Company was spectacular.  I’m sorry I missed that show. The Utah Festival Opera & Musical Theatre also staged two Disney musicals this summer. Newsies was a rousing, high-energy show celebrating the victory of a mob of spunky Davids over a deep-pocketed Goliath.  Mary Poppins featured fine acting, excellent vocal performances, spirited dancing, imaginative set designs and wild costuming. Both shows were crowd-pleasers that provided perfectly family-friendly and stubbornly inoffensive summer entertainment.

No, my objection to Disney musicals is that sometimes they don’t give gifted performers and directors enough with which to work. That’s because the creators of some of these shows were content to trade on their name recognition while merely rehashing the content of the original cartoons or films from which they sprang. To make matters worse, when the names of familiar Disney musicals jam the production schedules of theater companies, they crowd out opportunities for the staging of more original and creative musicals.

I guess what I’m really saying is “enough, already.”  

Yes, some of these Disney shows are excellent musicals. But others are just so-so. It would be a service to their audiences if theater companies would recognize the difference between those two extremes and adjust their production schedules accordingly. As always, theater patrons could speed that education process by not trooping like loyal lemmings to see mediocre shows.

Just remember: Disney musicals may be sweet and sentimental, but a steady diet of that sort of entertainment will rot not just your teeth but also your brain.

Support for Charlie's In The House comes from The Cache Valley Visitor Bureau and The Sportsman