Three summers ago, a production based on the movie “Beauty and the Beast” debuted at Disneyland. Two years ago, Aladdin’s Royal Caravan parade made the rounds, and the Lion King parade has been a roaring success since July.
It’s summer again, a new Disney animated film is in theaters, and steady as a beating drum, here comes “The Spirit of Pocahontas,” just around the river bend and into Fantasyland Theater.
“Steady as a Beating Drum” and “Just Around the River Bend,” are, not coincidentally, two songs from the new show, which opens today and plays five times daily through the summer, and after that on weekends indefinitely (or at least until next year’s animated film comes out).
Other than the music, however, don’t expect much material from the film.
“The hardest thing has been to translate an animated property--you can do wonderful things with animation that humans just can’t do,” said show producer Michael Maines. “This show is not only historical in essence but also fantastical, with lots of magical qualities, and that’s also a challenge.
“The ‘Beauty and the Beast’ [stage show], as good as it was, was kind of a Cliffs Notes version of the movie,” Maines said. “ ‘The Spirit of Pocahontas’ is very much a self-contained theatrical piece. We wanted to translate it so that people who love the film aren’t disappointed. But we also didn’t want to do an A-to-Z Cliffs Notes version. That’s why we call the show ‘The Spirit of Pocahontas,’ and not ‘Pocahontas, Live!’ ”
“Beauty and the Beast,” of course, has been expanded for legitimate stage and has since gone on to Broadway. For the half-hour “Pocahontas” production, the 10-year-old Videopolis theater, previously the venue for such shows as “Dick Tracy: Diamond Double Cross” and “Mickey’s Nutcracker,” has been re-christened the Fantasyland Theater and has been re-themed and retooled. Palm trees are out, evergreens are in.
In addition to songs from the motion-picture score by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, the staging includes choreography by Marla Bingham, whose heritage is Algonquin, the same as the tribe in the story. The show also incorporates sophisticated puppetry and stage illusions.
“The conceit of the show is taken from the powwow at the beginning of the film--that we are all guests and cast at the powwow,” Maines explained. “They tell stories. There are ritual dances. A medicine man, Werowance, a new character not in the film, conjures forth the spirit of Pocahontas and the spirit of John Smith. Both arrive in fantastical ways. Pocahontas is conjured out of water, Smith out of fire.”
Tribe members use various movements and devices to portray wind, seasons and animals. The mask used to portray the English people is revealing.
“It’s very stylized, kind of neutral. Just neutral,” Maines said. “What that means is white. What they saw was that the English were very pale, they looked kind of sickly, they had hair on their face. Before they knew enough to fear these people, they thought they were kind of silly in some ways.”
Things go from light to dark, however.
“We use ‘Savages’ as a big number,” Maines said. “The film, beyond being a love story, is a lot like ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ or like the finale of ‘West Side Story.’ ‘They’re savages.’ ‘No, they ‘ re savages. . . . ' That number gets a little intense.”
But it’s Disney, of course.
“It’s got a lot of wonderful messages about racial tolerance,” Maines said. “It ends optimistic, healthy, upbeat.”
Special effects are few but, Maines hopes, very effective, especially one he calls the “leaf vortex.” When Pocahontas and Smith hug at the end, he explained, “There’s a reverse revolving, leaves swirl around them in a funnel, like a hurricane, almost digitizes them.” They “rejoin the leaves” as they descend together into the earth.
More challenging than special effects has been finding someone to play Pocahontas.
With animation, noted John McClintock, director of Disneyland publicity, “you can use a human model to start with, then draw a character pretty much any way you want to and have them speak with one voice and sing with another voice, which is the case with the Pocahontas character in the film. For Michael’s production, he had to find one performer who looks right, moved right and could sing and act.”
Actually, Maines had to find three performers who could do all that. Frequency of performances demands a trio of Pocahontases--one for the bulk of performances, two for remaining shifts--among a total cast of 30, 17 in each performance.
“We used a lot of Native American consultants and casting agencies on this,” said Maines. “In the end, 38% of the performers are actually Native Americans. The rest are Hispanic, or have Native American in their backgrounds. Our lead Pocahontas [Christine Marquez] is half Native American.
“You want her to be able to sing this unbelievably difficult score and to look just like this unbelievable piece of animation, and by the way, could she be Native American too? We had exhaustive auditions all over the country,” he said. “We were really fortunate. As it turned out, all three were from Southern California.”
* “The Spirit of Pocahontas” show opens today in the Fantasyland Theater at Disneyland, 1313 Harbor Blvd., Anaheim. Plays five times daily through the summer. Park hours: 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily. Admission: $25 to $33. (714) 999-4565.