The Princess Dreariness

16. February, 2013 Theater No comments

The Disney princesses are sick and tired of all the demure, happily-ever-after crap they have to put up with, and they’re not going to take it anymore. Okay, sure they are. In fact, they may not change a thing about their lives, but hooboy are they going to kvetch about them.

Shelby Olsen, Jessica Fisher and Amanda Leigh Denison in Disenchanted!

That’s pretty much what you have to expect from Disenchanted! a comedic musical cabaret with the subtitle Bitches of the Kingdom that debuted in 2011 at the Orlando International Fringe Festival and is headed for an off-Broadway run later this year. Now it’s playing in the small Knight Stage 3 at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts as the inaugural production of Ryan Cowles’s “OMG, I Love That Show!” Productions. Helmed by the show’s original director, Fiely Matias, this particular staging is a local production with a local cast.

Written and composed by Dennis T. Giacino, the show follows the simple format of a musical revue led by Snow White, with support from Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Cowles’s set is a simple red curtain in a frame ringed with lights, with a three-piece band filling the rear third of the small stage, behind a low divider. Costumer Derek Leo Miller puts almost everyone in simple black dresses, some of them ill-fitting.

Jessica Fisher is a brassy and domineering Snow White who has the others terrified of stepping on her lines, always shooting them glares and cueing the band to stop and start with a snap of her fingers. Shelby Olsen is a standout delight as Cinderella, often hilarious in her giddy enthusiasm, even if the character as written falls back on the tired trope of the dingy blonde. Amanda Leigh Denison’s Sleeping Beauty is also given to amusingly irrepressible blurts, much to Snow White’s annoyance, and she’s also narcoleptic, often nodding off behind the curtain.

The main princesses introduce each new act, which gets very, very repetitive after a while—not the introductions but the acts themselves. The introductions just highlight the one-damn-thing-after-another nature of the revue, saying, in essence, “Oh, we haven’t complained about this yet! And let’s not forget this!” Although some of the performances add a needed bit of zest, both the writing and the staging are pretty lackluster, and it gets old pretty quick. After 15 minutes or so you’ve got the idea, and after 30 minutes you may be pretty ready for them to wrap it up, but you still have another intermissionless hour left to go.

Suzie Shepard gives a couple of over-the-top turns as a jittery Belle tied to a chair, singing a vaguely 1950s-style number about being driven insane by all the inanimate household objects talking to her, and as a blowsy trailer-park Little Mermaid. The latter gives a country vocal twang to a generic schmaltzy pop song about what a pain in the ass legs are.

Pocahontas (an amusingly helium-voiced Estelle Fernandez) is introduced with much fanfare only to participate in a limp commercial parody that is really only made funny because of her ludicrous preening and to lead a song about “Big Tits.” That number is particularly puzzling; it’s her and the main three princesses singing about how all their success is due to having large knockers, which is strange because I don’t know if they’re talking about fan art or theme-part casting or what, but the Disney cartoons don’t depict the princesses as particularly large-breasted. And their complaint that it’s all because they’ve obviously been written and drawn by men makes us all too aware that that same situation is actually a more obvious problem in the show we’re watching now than in the Disney flicks, because all the kvetching about sexist tropes is undermined by the whole musical catering to stereotypes just as mired in sexism.

When Pocahontas comes back much later in the show for a solo number asking why her story can’t be told “Honestly,” I found myself saying, “Oh, now she gets an actual song?” But that particular song is actually halfway affecting and one of the better numbers in the whole show, despite its musical similarity to Sleeping Beauty’s ballad immediately preceding it. It’s still not letting the tit thing go, though: “I was only ten years old, and now I’m double D!”

Fernandez also serves as a reserved Mulan, singing a song about how, because she’s the only princess who didn’t get the guy, she must be a lesbian. Not that it wouldn’t be a fine thing for there to be a lesbian Disney princess, but say what now?

Allison Meneley comes up through the aisle several times as various neglected female characters in stories starring men and boys, the raised house lights spurring a vain hope for an intermission that we know isn’t coming, when we might be able to duck out discreetly. Her first turn is especially confusing, because she says she’s Princess Badroulbador from The Arabian Nights, better known to us as Jasmine from Aladdin, but there’s nothing in her demeanor or her hastily thrown-together costume to indicate that this white girl is supposed to be Middle Eastern. (That may be merciful, however.) She comes back again as the “Gypsy Queen” Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame and as Tinkerbelle from Peter Pan, each time making the same entrance and singing the same song about being “a secondary princess in a secondary role,” culminating each time in a disturbing joke about cutting the protagonist’s dick off so that people will pay attention to her.

Ladidi Garba gets even shorter shrift as the only African-American Disney princess, “The One Who Kissed the Frog,” coming out only to sing a song that’s just about, hey, there’s a black princess now. (I’m guessing they’re avoiding Disney-specific names to steer clear of copyright infringement, but it comes off as, “Eh, who cares what her name is?”) Garba also shows up once earlier as a glowering, imposing Rapunzel whom the others appear to be scared of (“Vat, you never heard of the Black Forest?” she says), leading them in a rousing German cabaret number, “Not V’one Red Cent,” that’s unfortunately not very interesting lyrically, just about how the princesses don’t make a penny off all that Disney merchandising. Both she and Meneley are absent for the ensemble numbers, except at the very end. Garba did, however, accept a marriage proposal from her sweetheart at the curtain call opening night, and as moments in the sun go, that’s a pretty hard one to beat.

It doesn’t seem coincidental that Disenchanted! debuted in Orlando. It might play well in Anaheim too, somewhere with enough of an investment in Disney lore that subverting it is taboo enough to sustain interest beyond the first few songs. And indeed, it’s no real surprise to hear that playwright/songwriter Giacino used to work as a Disney World cast member (just as Bay Area playwright Trevor Allen used his time as a Disneyland character into the hilarious one-man show Working for the Mouse). But this business of poking fun or calling bullshit on fairytale tropes has been done so much more interestingly elsewhere—most notably in the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods, but also in the comic book Fables and even the movie Enchanted and the ABC TV series Once Upon a Time, both of which are owned by Disney itself.

Some of the other ditties harp on how much the princesses have to diet to stay thin (“All I Wanna Do Is Eat”) and how they’re not going to do any bleeping chores for any bleeping man (“A Happy Tune?”). Again and again the show comes off as false empowerment that does more to reinforce gender stereotypes than subvert them, even as it comments on them. Sure, the princesses grouse and grouse about their prescribed roles but seem disempowered to change anything. It’s just a bit of venting before going back to the cheer mines to smile and look pretty for the Mouse.

Through February 24
Lesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive
Walnut Creek, CA

Show #18 of 2013, attended February 15.

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