With a catalog heavy on titles like “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and populated by the likes of Dumbo and Pocohontas, you’d think the family audience would be the No. 1 target for a road musical revue aimed at the hinterlands. But the few kids in attendance at the Chicago opening of Disney’s latest legit project, the polished but strangely schizophrenic “On the Record,” had checked out well before the end, confused and bored by a show that unaccountably and ill-advisedly runs like crazy from Disney’s core fans even as it wants to celebrate the company’s musical past.
Instead, “On the Record” tries to be a sleek and sophisticated out-of-context cabaret with enough visual embellishments to fill big roadhouses without embarrassment, yet also avoid busting any budgets. That probably was an impossible, mutually exclusive task for Robert Longbottom, the main creative force behind this show.
“On the Record” needs a lot more bodies than the eight currently onstage and a fresher, funnier, riskier and more accessible concept than is on display, polished but strangely schizophrenic.
The big problem now for presenters as “On the Record” wends its way around the country will be trying to sell adults on coming to hear “You Can Fly! You Can Fly! You Can Fly!” while also letting auds know that there’s not much here for kids expecting to meet a mermaid or a sleeping beauty.
And with theme-park shows growing in sophistication, this show may strike some as insufficiently distinct to merit a Broadway-priced ducat.
“On the Record” suffers all the usual problems of the revue genre and then some. The concept — a bunch of singers have shown up in a recording studio, sometimes knowing what they are doing and why they are there, sometimes not — just doesn’t work. The show gets trapped into the disastrous device of having the ensemble quartet move big boom mikes around. That makes them look like scene-shifters. And the visual patterns it creates are interesting for, oh, about five minutes.
Even more seriously, there isn’t enough of a narrative scenario to actually make the case that we need one. The vague characters — a pair of young potential lovers played by Ashley Brown and Andrew Samonksy and a pair of older, semi-wounded types, played by Emily Skinner and Brian Sutherland — are too archetypal to be fresh.
Worse, there’s a disembodied voice-of-the-engineer (Richard Easton) that achieves little more than to remind people of the tyrant from “A Chorus Line.” Energy — and the mainly very young cast has plenty of that, given the chance — completely dissipates as soon as Easton’s thudding, humorless, prepackaged tones come over the speakers.
For almost the whole night, the show ignores the actual properties (movies, theme-park rides, shows) from which the songs originated. That was a reasonable and understandable decision. But then in the second act, a big screen falls, and performers start singing “Be Our Guest” in different languages, as the animation plays behind. You get the sense someone wanted to remind us that Disney is a global brand. First, we knew that already. And second, if we were going to go that route, then we needed to go that route all night.
Certainly, there is a great deal of quality work from Broadway pros on display. In particular, newcomer Brown has a colossal set of pipes. Skinner, also no slouch in the vocal department, has some fine moments. The gents are less secure but game. And when you hear everything from “The Lady Is a Tramp” to “A Part of It All” on the same night, you marvel at the richness and diversity of Disney music over the years.
Indeed, the best aspects of this show are all musical. Arranger David Chase often uses lush eight-part harmony, and even creaking numbers from early shorts sound musically fresh and vital. Thanks to the quality of much of the singing, and the rich and sophisticated musical arrangements, “On the Record” avoids embarrassment. The best moments are all solo ballads; whenever Brown or Skinner get the chance to stand stage center and belt, you start to believe in the whole idea.
If this shore is best suited to any one group, it is to the City Center Encores types — cabaret-loving folks interested in hearing new treatments of movie and show tunes. This show has plenty for them.
But for everyone else? This cold, insecure and surprisingly bland effort surely will underwhelm hinterland auds attracted by its promise of 64 fun and diverse Disney numbers. Nothing really pops until the terrific finale — the only time the show finally gains some color and a sense of humor. But by then, it’s much too late.