A darker Walt Disney conjured in ‘The Perfect American’
Justin Ryan as Walt Disney (center), Kira Dills-DeSurra (left) and Kyle Knapp in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of "The Perfect American."
It must be hard for those weaned on digital culture to appreciate the enormous impact Walt Disney and his entertainment empire had on my generation. When I was growing up, owning a Davy Crockett hat and sitting down in front of the family’s big, clunky TV console to watch "Mickey Mouse Club" each and every weekday afternoon were essential rites of passage from childhood to adolescence.
Presiding benignly over a global fiefdom born of storytelling genius and commercial shrewdness was Uncle Walt himself, a kind of surrogate father who, we kids were led to believe, could do no wrong.
Perhaps not as far as the general public was concerned, but the Disney known to his studio associates most definitely had his dark side. And it is this underbelly of an iconic if complicated American visionary that Philip Glass’ fascinating opera "The Perfect American" explores so unflinchingly, in a tautly effective Midwest premiere that closes the Chicago Opera Theater season at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park.
The show, which opened Saturday night, returns Disney to Chicago, where he was born, before the family moved to Marceline, Mo., a sleepy little railroad junction he came to regard as "Main Street U.S.A," encapsulating staunchly American virtues that would profoundly shape Disney the man and Disney the entertainment mogul.
It’s to this idyllic small town of his boyhood that the opera’s Walt Disney, dying of lung cancer at 65 in a California hospital room, returns again and again, his mind lurching between reality and fantasy as he frets over the fate of his global empire and that of the Disney brand after his passing.
"We were country boys hiding behind a mouse and a duck," sing Walt and his older brother and business partner Roy Disney, in flashbacks laden with nostalgia for a simpler world, untouched by the social progressivism of the ’60s. It’s one of the choicer lines in librettist Rudolph Wurlitzer’s concise theatrical adaptation of the Disney bio-novel "The King of America," by American-born German author Peter Stephan Jungk.
COT is giving the show a first-rate staging by director Kevin Newbury, in a co-production with Long Beach Opera, where Andreas Mitisek, COT’s departing artistic director, serves as artistic and general director. This is the 17th show Mitisek has brought to Chicago during his five seasons as head of COT, and it is one of the best.
No surprise that Disney’s heirs effectively put the kibosh on Glass’ 25th opera having its U.S. premiere in Los Angeles, where Disney exerted his greatest impact. This work portrays him as a racist, misogynist, fierce anti-unionist, right-wing Commie-baiter and cruel employer who took credit for the creative efforts of his employees.
Unpleasant the real Disney may have been, but "The Perfect American" refuses to trash him, even at his nastiest. We are made to feel the terror of his last days, when he is haunted by demons — the vision of an owl he killed during his childhood, the confrontation with an animator whom he fired, the fear of a social revolution he cannot understand, much less control.
The music aids in this subtle balancing act. Glass’ score, with its trademark pulsing ostinatos and swirling arpeggios — brilliantly played by a 40-piece orchestra and firmly conducted by Mitisek — takes the composer into lyrical directions far removed from his baby-simple minimalist roots. This is a more musically sophisticated Glass than we have heard before. The music exudes a melodic grace, a newfound subtlety of harmonic and rhythmic impetus, that support a portrait ultimately more sympathetic than unsympathetic. "The Perfect American" is a worthy addition to the series of Glass portrait operas of towering figures who changed the world.
Flaws? The opera’s first act, depicting the public Disney surrounded by family and friends determined not to disabuse him of his rosy fantasies, is dramatically uneventful until Walt’s encounter with a broken, animatronic Abraham Lincoln. Disney identifies with Lincoln, a folk hero who changed the world, even though he disagrees with the president’s views on emancipation.
The second and final act, evoking Disney’s inner life, is stronger. Pop artist Andy Warhol drops in, insisting he and Walt are cuts of the same populist cloth. Disney attends his own wake, building a miniature Disneyland shrine to himself out of medicine bottles. The chorus (here Chicago’s Apollo Chorus) extols the magic kingdom he created in Anaheim, Calif., a sanitized theme park where there is only Technicolor beauty.
Sometimes moving in sync with the percolating gait of Glass’ score, Newbury’s fluid staging makes effective use of the bare hospital-room set of scenic designer Zane Pihlstrom. The stage is bathed in the glare of overhead lamps that loom like a sinister Calder mobile. Hospital beds are moved to and fro in front of a large segmented video screen on which various projections play out. The video and puppet designer is Sean Cawelti. David Martin Jacques created the lighting.
One clever video touch, in an opera mostly lacking in humor, is having a trend line in the hospital’s patient monitoring equipment suddenly morph into the outline of Mickey Mouse ears.
COT is fielding a strong ensemble of singing actors.
Baritone Justin Ryan makes something oddly touching of Disney’s paranoia and neurotic need as he helplessly faces his mortality. Zeffin Quinn Hollis doubles appreciatively as the loyal Roy Disney and Abe Lincoln. Jamie Chamberlin brings comedic flair to Hazel George, the nurse depicted here as Disney’s true love at the end of his life. Scott Ramsay wields a formidable tenor as Wilhelm Dantine, the fictional studio animator Disney canned for having tried to create a union.
Suzan Hanson makes a suitably brave-through-the-tears Lillian Disney, Walt’s wife; and Rana Ebrahimi portrays a sweet-voiced Josh, a young hospital patient who idolizes Walt (he calls Disney "God" and Disney agrees). Kyle Knapp is a campy hoot as Warhol and a doctor.
After conducting Menotti’s "The Consul" to open the COT season this fall, Mitisek will move on to other operatic ventures but says he hopes to return to Chicago on a project-by-project basis. One hopes he is as good as his word. The city’s alternative opera company needs to continue his brave vision of what contemporary music theater can and should be.
Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Philip Glass’ "The Perfect American" repeats at 3 p.m. April 30 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St.; $39-$75; 312-704-8414, www.cot.org.
John von Rhein is a Tribune critic.
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