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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
For Small World, a small play about two men with huge egos now at 59E59's Theater B, playwright Frederick Stroppel took his own liberties with the facts about that Disney-Stravinsky collaboration. While Stravinsky was invited to Disney's Hollywood studio to view a still rough version of Fantasia, the composer didn't denounce his Rite of Spring segment in that film as terrible until nine years later; ditto for his disparagement of the film's conductor Leopold Stokowski's interpretation as "execrable."
Two character plays in which two men with strongly held opinions are thrown together (it always seems to be men?!) tend to have long, profitable theatrical lives. Lee Blessings 1988 A Walk in the Woods . More recently, and even more so was Freud's Last Session , which like Small World had a Nazi era time frame to add dramatic momentum 2 characters-- both well-known but at odds in ideas and persona has been popular genre.
For Stroppel this odd-couple collaboration was clearly an opportunity to create an entertaining debate tackling important issues about art, success and failure and the courage to stick to one's beliefs. And so, Stroppel has created his own time frame for the facts. He opens up with Stravinsky's arrival at the Disney Studio but has that long delayed condemnation follow right after the screening to lift what is essentially a debate-like meditation on all these big ideas into a dramatic beginning-middle-end laugh flavored dramedy of two very different men's fraught relationship.
For most of the 90-minute play, especially the first of its three scenes, Stroppel's concept works pretty well. The opening has Stravinsky (Stephen D'Ambrose) and Disney (Mark Shanahan), making alternate appearances on opposite sides of James J. Fenton's basic but apt set for the tiny stage, each explaining his creative process. The strains of "Rites of Spring" in the background and the way the men are dressed by Patricia E. Doherty effectively establishes the time (1939) and vive-la-difference tone (formal for Stravinsky, casual for Disney).
Under Brancato's fluid direction that opening makes for a nice move into the men's interaction, which in turn establishes the personalities of Disney as the talented but pragmatic all-American pitchman and Stravinsky as the more high-minded, European. That meet-up does manage to live up to the play's billing as a comedy, mostly courtesy of Stravinsky's comments on Disney's famous Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, and his hit adaptation of the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Both actors bring their characters to vivid and watchable life. And the actual Fantasia screening works well without projections or other high tech gimmickry thanks to Shanahan's impressive commentary and Christina Watanabe's dynamic lighting.
Other facts about this mismatched pair's lives and careers come into play in the second section, after Fantasia has flopped and Disney's fortunes are at a low ebb, and Stravinsky has succumbed to the siren song of La La Land. While the playwright manages to touch on the darker aspects of Disney's reputed willingness to do business with the Nazis and Stravinsky's questionable attitude towards Mussolini. But for a really in-depth look at these men's psychological make-up you'd need to check into more fully detailed biographies like the one about Stravinsky by Stephen Walsh and the one about Disney by Neal Gabler.
Unfortunately, the promising start and mostly entertaining middle end with a too-easy other worldly finale where Mr. Stroppel would have us believe they're still disagreeing about success and failure, true art and crowd pleasing pandering.
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Small World by Frederick Stroppel
Directed by Joe Brancato
Cast: Stephen D'Ambrose as Igor Stravinsky and Mark Shanahan as Walt Disney.
Sets: James Fenton
Lighting: Christine Watanabe
Costumes: Patricia E. Doherty
Sound: William Neal
Properties: Buffy Cardoza
Stage Manager: Michael Palmer
Running Time: Approx. 90 Minutes
59E59 Theaters 59 East 59th Street www.59e59.org
From 9/13/17; opening 9/17/17; closing 10/07/17.
Tuesday – Thursday at 7:15 PM; Friday at 8:15 PM; Saturday at 2:15 PM & 8:15 PM; and Sunday at 3:15 PM & 7:15 PM.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on 9/21/17
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