by Edward Kliszus
Burbank – Walt Disney in crisis focuses on 1941 just before and during the time of a five-week strike by Walt Disney’s animators that nearly bankrupted him.
American entrepreneur Walt Disney is rarely mentioned these days, despite his international and sustained fame as a recipient of 22 Academy Awards as a film producer and pioneer in film animation dating back to the 1920s. From Disney’s personal history as a simple cartoonist to a player on the world stage, there are many angles from which to examine his life. What’s essential about the strike, and what might it teach us about Disney’s legacy?
While waiting in the audience for the show to begin, toe-tapping music from the 1940s gently drifted. There was wry humor yet to be realized with the selection ”Don’t You Feel My Leg,” made famous by BluLu Baker. Some big band tunes followed, and from the thicket of swing dance emerged “When You Wish Upon a Star,” sung by Cliff Edwards through the cartoon character of Jiminy Cricket in Disney’s Pinnochio; the song is, of course, about dreams coming true.
From the onset, Disney (Cameron Darwin Bossert) was an assiduous, ambitious visionary with a portentous tobacco habit and artistic temperament. We saw a martinet expressing directions in an autocratic and temperamental manner to his gifted cartoonist Art Babbitt (Ryan Blackwell). This pattern of interactions spawned resentment and eventually motivated Babbitt to participate in the strike.
Pieces of Disney’s remarkable life are gleaned as Disney and Babbitt discuss legendary projects like Snow White and Fantasia while lending insight into Disney’s creative and business acumen. Disney expressed disappointment with the public’s initial dim appreciation of Fantasia with its amazing animations projected over the music of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Mussorgsky’s A Night on Bald Mountain, Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, and Igor Stravinsky’s powerful and profane Rite of Spring.
But this leads to Disney’s realization that films crafted with heightened sensibility to the greater public’s broad interests can contribute to the common good, provide joy, and sell tickets. Thus, Disney builds a tradition of supporting his stories with music built on late 19th-century romantic notions and pathos. His films shall now feature music and songs destined to be appreciated and beloved by subsequent generations. Instead of ballet and orchestral classics, we now hum along with “A Whole New World,” “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” and “A Wish is a Dream Your Heart Makes.”
We learned about singer Adriana Caselotti, who provided the title character’s voice in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Disney’s first animated feature. Caselotti was the first female voiceover artist to achieve recognition as a Disney Legend in 1994.
After a few minutes, I realized we were witnessing a period piece set solidly in its time and place. While modern aesthetes frequently luxuriate in modernizing period works to conform with contemporary social thought and theory, author Cameron Darwin Bossert focused on 1941 and the benefits that eventually emerged and remained in Perpetuum. Preserving the period enabled the audience participant to immerse in the unfolding story fully.
During the strike, Betty Ann Dunbar (Kelley Lord), heretofore employed in mundane assignments at Disney, by chance meets both Disney and Babbitt and emerges from her ingenuous roles into a ______. Well, Lord’s character as Dunbar is a delight, and I won’t give away the story just yet.
To experience Burbank in this charming, intimate theater space in the East Village, Manhattan, you’ll need to get a ticket immediately, as the show runs only through September 18.
Burbank is fun, thought-provoking, and insightful as it examines Walt Disney’s perhaps unintentional societal contributions during an employee strike in wartime America. These contributions are perhaps elements of a formula for his subsequent immoderate recognition, artistic achievements, and financial success.
By Cameron Darwin Bossert
With Ryan Blackwell, Kelley Lord, and Cameron Darwin Bossert
Costume Design Yolanda Balaña
Lighting Tech Joey Neill
Music & Sound Design Deeba Montazeri
Fight Choreographer Michael Hagins
Stage Manager Lauren Arneson
Press Representative Spin Cycle
Produced by Thirdwing Lauren Arneson
Executive Producers Maureen E. Egginton, Cherise Barsell, Eric Lacoudre, and Abe Altman
September 6 -18.
Performances are Tuesday – Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm and 8 pm.
No performances on Sept 12 & 13.
Runtime 80 minutes.
The Wild Project
195 E. 3rd Street between Aves A & B.
Tickets are $25 at www.thirdwing.info.
Patrons can also purchase a one-year membership to Thirdwing for $49 (or $4.99/month), which includes two tickets to the show, one ticket to each upcoming production, and access to all content on their streaming platform.