If you’re craving the art and music of the late Walt Disney, you should go anywhere but the world premiere of the affectionate “When You Wish: The Story of Walt Disney” at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse. There may be no other place on Earth so free of Disney iconography.
This musical by writer, composer and lyricist Dean McClure portrays Walt (Tim Martin Gleason) as a dreamer who suffers setbacks but perseveres with the support of his business partner and brother, Roy (the dryly witty Andy Umberger, who also narrates), his friend Ub Iwerks (Louis Pardo) and his adoring wife, Lillian (the enchanting Brandi Burkhardt). If it stops just short of hagiography (Walt is sometimes inconsiderate), it also avoids any suggestion of unsavory behavior or even significant conflict in his life.
Disney’s family apparently approved the book, but the rights to drawings, films and songs must have been prohibitively expensive. Adam Flemming’s charming video projections on Tom Buderwitz’s simple, effective set include clips from early Laugh-O-Grams shorts, now in the public domain. But no Mickey Mouse, no Sleeping Beauty, no Jiminy Cricket. No "When You Wish Upon a Star" -- though young Walt's mother (Melissa Fahn) sings him "When You Wish," a lullaby that sounds a lot like it.
So McClure, director Larry Raben and choreographer Lee Martino gamely devised ways to tell the story without them, often in creative and theatrical ways: a dance montage of Walt’s experiences in Hollywood, and another that evokes a string of Disney classics without infringing their copyrights.
The score is packed with brisk, pleasant numbers, the leads deliver strong performances, the ensemble is lithe, and Norman Large twinkles in an array of quirky bit parts. Everyone will enjoy the in-jokes, as when Roy, worried about money, remarks of some merchandise samples, “Hey, maybe this stuff could help us.”
So maybe we don’t need to see Mickey Mouse. We can certainly imagine him. Some of us needed a break from him anyway. Even so, “When You Wish” might benefit from a few more examples of what Walt was wishing for on all those stars.
“When You Wish: The Story of Walt Disney,” Freud Playhouse, UCLA, Westwood. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 3. $65. (310) 825-2101 or www.whenyouwishmusical.com. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
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