Theatre review: Long Beach Opera’s The Perfect American

By: Anita W. Harris
Staff Writer

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Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff
Suzan Hanson (Lillian Disney), Justin Ryan (Walt Disney) and Zeffin Quinn Hollis (Roy Disney) in Long Beach Opera’s The Perfect American
Long Beach Opera holds the honor of producing Philip Glass’s The Perfect American in its American debut. Sung in English, this opera tells the story of Walt Disney’s final few months in a hospital, delving into Disney’s struggle with his legacy, his Americanism and fear of his own death. LBO Director Andreas Mitisek’s precise conducting of Glass’s harmonically rhythmic music is matched by Kevin Newbury’s visionary staging and direction, and excellent performances, resulting in a transporting experience through one American man’s conflicted psyche.

This account of Disney is based on a novel by Peter Stephan Jungk that posits an Austrian cartoonist, Wilhelm Dantine (Scott Ramsey), as an artist who had been fired by Disney (Justin Ryan) and witnesses his final days before Disney dies of lung cancer. The hospital set complements the structure of Glass’s music, with its backdrop of neon bars forming a stark but luminous grid, looming surgical lights in the foreground and a flowing white curtain. Swinging hospital doors with large portholes on one side of the stage balance the composition.

Performers continually move across this sterile milieu in dynamic choreography, with Disney (Ryan) and his brother Roy (Zeffin Quinn Hollis) relating most of the story, which starts with reminiscences of their Midwest boyhood town, Marceline, the magical “soul of America.” It is this ideal vision of small-town America, with a candy shop and train station, that Disney wishes to egoistically impose upon the world. Scenes depicting Marceline are projected onto the gridded backdrop while Walt and Roy nostalgically sing in baritone about apple pie and popcorn at the movies. In a creative touch, the town is also projected in a silhouette that Disney fervishly designs from hospital materials.

Around him swirl a cast of visiting family members and hospital staff pushing beds and setting up IV drips. They sometimes become inhabitants of Disney’s own disturbed imagination, most effectively early in the production when he can’t tell real from not real and the performers weave about like zombies, but also in the second act when he conducts them in his own imaginary vision until they all collapse like puppets with strings cut. A large mechanical puppet of Disney’s hero, Abraham Lincoln (designed by Jack Pullman and operated by two performers), is also brought to life in Disney’s imagination to dialogue with him about being American.

That conversation is telling in terms the tension between Disney’s professed values and the American roots he idealizes. His conservative view that places products over individuals and disparages unions, drug-taking hippies with long hair (this is the mid-1960s, after all) and black civil rights, is balanced by Lincoln (Hollis) espousing the higher principles of tolerance (as Glass’s music, too, takes a more noble tonal turn). A red-gloved Andy Warhol (Kyle Erdos-Knapp) also makes an appearance to visit Disney, similarly making a colorful case for inclusivity as an American child of an immigrant, before being turned away. And Dantine (Ramsey), the fired cartoonist, makes every effort to force Disney to admit he built his empire on the backs of hundreds of uncredited artists, absorbing their art in his own name.

The saddest consequence of Disney’s myopia is his turning away of a child patient (Rana Ebrahimi) who comes to his hospital birthday party dressed as an owl, ostensibly because Disney was traumatized by an owl as a kid (it’s one of the few small animals he didn’t love), but also perhaps because this child had never heard of him and as a result, dared to create a costume from her own imagination.

The whole cast is simply sensational. Ryan comfortably commands in his role as Disney, his baritone complemented extremely well by Hollis as Roy. As Dantine, Ramsay’s tenor is bold, rich and expressive. The four women sopranos hold their own confidently, and a supporting, uniformed choir is visible through a rectangular window cut into the backdrop. Though hidden, the orchestra led by Mitisek manages the intricacies of Glass’s music exactingly.

Stage props are in constant motion with beds, chairs and lights all on wheels, allowing the creation of a train made of beds and other delightful tableaus. Costumes are suitable as well, with Disney himself clad in pajamas, slippers and silk robe throughout, and he, his wife and two daughters in jewel tones of mustard, wine, chartreuse, teal and purple– perhaps a nod to the vivid colors of animation– with the hospital staff matching the background in white and gray.

As told through this enriching production, The Perfect American is resonant as the story of a needy man whose expansive yet conservative vision parallels the one that continues to define this nation. But in his childlike imagination, his wish to be forever-known without losing himself, and his crippling fear of death, we might also see our deepest selves.

The Perfect American will be performed at the Terrace Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Saturday, Mar. 18, at 8pm. Tickets are $49-$150. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 470-7464 or visit longbeachopera.org.

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Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff
Justin Ryan (Walt Disney), Kyle Erdos-Knapp (Doctor), Justin Boss (Doctor #2), Jamie Chamberlin (Hazel) and Kira Dills-DeSurra (Nurse) in Long Beach Opera’s The Perfect American

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