Small World – a fantasia – Highly Original and Entertaining

“It’s a big year in Hollywood. All kinds of terrific movies…: Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights…Just last month The Wizard of Oz, which was pretty nifty… in December: Gone With the Wind. Runs almost four hours, costs almost four million. They’re going to lose their shirts…” Walt Disney has the enthusiasm of a child at Christmas.

In 1939, the visionary was flying high on public approbation. For his studio’s third animated feature, Disney concocted Fantasia, eight separate segments buoyed by classical music. A series of live concerts were performed on premises. Compositions by various composers were considered. Appreciation of Peter and the Wolf (an eventual 1946 film), induced Disney to invite Sergei Prokofiev to his home. (Playwright Frederick Stroppel seems unaware of this allowing Disney to repeatedly attribute the piece to Stravinsky, much to the latter’s amusing annoyance.)

Walt Disney; Igor Stravinsky (Wikipedia)

Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet, “Rite of Spring” is part of a multi-composer score in the Disney Company film, Fantasia. This play allows us to imagine professional meetings of the two seemingly very different artists. Initially, the internationally known Russian composer/conductor is 58; the burgeoning filmmaker, 38. Stravinsky is old world; elegant, sophisticated, and pessimistic. Disney, in suspenders and patterned tie, embodies American optimism determined to manifest childlike dreams. They both have outsized egos.

The first part of their interview ensues with Disney’s foot in his mouth as he tells Stravinsky that the film will make him famous…”right up there with the big boys.” In short shrift, he discovers the icon’s disdain for Fantasia’s conductor, Leopold Stokowski, that a promotional tour is out of the question – “I only tour in front of orchestras” – and that the composer is appalled his story of Russian peasants, pagan ritual and human sacrifice is to be employed underscoring the origin of life on earth and dinosaurs.

Stephen D’Ambrose and Mark Shanahan

Referring to riots at the ballet’s Paris premiere, Disney comments that his film “will remove the stigma.” “If you wanted creation music, you should’ve called Haydn, he’s dead and wouldn’t be offended,” Stravinsky snaps (a nod to Haydn’s Oratorio). The locking of horns is pithy and articulate. Disney accuses Stravinsky of being stuck in the past, while he in turn condemns Disney for eschewing the integrity of art in favor of money. It turns out not only has the composer accepted a $6000 payment, but the music is in Public Domain. He has no choice.

We discover what happens during vicissitudes of a war that cut off European markets, observe the deflation of Disney’s ego (its resurgence, having nothing to do with this relationship, is omitted except in later reference), learn the rewards and consequences of Stravinsky’s newfound popular fame and find the two men once again butting heads, still unable to see eye to eye creatively, now accusing one another of moral deficit. Along the way, history and character are revealed.

Mark Shanahan and Stephen D’Ambrose

The play is smart, amusing, and illuminating; both characters well drawn. Though content of meetings is hypothesized, facts around them are actual. A somewhat thin ending might be rewritten for more significant revelations.

Mark Shanahan’s Walt Disney is charismatic; palpably enthusiastic, stubborn, and clever. What he lacks in culture, he more than makes up for in finger-on-the-pulse inspiration. We see peripheral discomfort when the first is exposed, fireworks when the second is conjured. To watch Shanahan describe an animated sequence is to see it come to life before you. The actor appears boyish but never insubstantial. One can almost hear the gears of his character’s active mind.

As Igor Stravinsky, Stephen D’Ambrose is suave, dignified, dark, and extremely sure of his own genius. He feels the insulting upstart to which his wallet is subject, should by all rights be swatted away like an unwelcome insect. We believe his integrity and blanch at incisive temper. The actor ably represents both his character’s background and parenthetic sublimation of pride.

Director Joe Brancato uses minimal set to excellent, low key effect. Every aspect of his protagonists from bearing, to gesture, to Stravinsky’s spot-on accent is well realized. Arguments flow without succumbing to the trap of anticipation. At one point Disney’s incidental cough indicates oncoming, fatal illness. The director displays that kind of effective subtlety.

James J. Fenton’s Scenic Design displays animation sketches and sections of musical score at curving angles I interpret as emulating film frames.

Patricia E. Doherty’s Costumes are absolutely right.

Production Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening: Stephen D’Ambrose and Mark Shanahan

Penguin Rep Theatre presents
Small World – a fantasia by Frederick Stroppel
Directed by Joe Brancato
59E59 Theaters    
Through October 7, 2017

About Alix Cohen (784 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.