From time to time I plan to review specific live shows, applying the 5 elements of themed entertainment I wrote about in From Dreamer to Dreamfinder: 1) Deliver What You Promise, 2) Don’t Waste My Time, 3) Make Me Laugh, 4) Surprise Me, and 5) Move Me.
I’m doing this, not to criticize what’s been produced, but rather to examine and consider for future writers and artists what’s working, what’s not and why.
For the first such post I couldn’t have asked for a better set of examples than the two shows that have just debuted in Disneyland’s new Fantasy Faire Royal Theatre, ‘Tangled’ (aka Rapunzel) and ‘Beauty and the Beast’.
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Take a moment now and watch this performance of ‘Tangled’, paying particular attention to the sounds coming from the audience… Video courtesy of www.SoCalAdventuresHD.com.
Welcome back! What did you think of the show? Were you entertained? Would you want to see it again, live? Would you take a friend to see it; someone whose intelligence and friendship you respected?
As for me. the show works. It’s funny where it is trying to be funny, touching where it is supposed to be touching. And it isn’t just ‘storytellers’; the show features real Disney Characters! They talk to us, perform for us, have fun with us… like the characters used to when every interaction wasn’t a managed meet-n-greet.
To be sure, some of the banter goes nowhere (and these particular storytellers do overplay things a bit)… but everything moves along at a fast clip and in no time we are on to the next bit which is probably funny. Or touching. Or both.
The humor is entirely inclusive, by which I mean it is all about our mutual experience of the story, the theater and the park. There are contemporary references to the film, to Disneyland, and to us as an audience. Even Rapunzel and Flynn Rider are hip to where we are and what we already know. They treat us as friends taking the trip with them… but always in character and always in the moment.
The performers rarely urge us to laugh or cheer inappropriately at some weak bit of business. I was particularly impressed with the portrayal of Mother Gothel. The bits are fast, funny and simple. And funny.
The one weak spot for me is the opening song which, in my opinion, seems unnecessarily long and juvenile. Still, the show works. And that sound coming from the audience is real laughter. My congratulations to all involved.
Time to take another moment and watch this performance of ‘Beauty and the Beast’. Again, please listen up for the sounds coming from the audience… Video courtesy of www.insidethemagic.com.
And we’re back! Same theater, same basic cast, probably the same writer. Not a lot of laughs. Certainly not the depth of emotion the story has generated in all the other versions out there. Why? If there’s a hard-and-fast answer to the question, I don’t know what it is. But I have a few thoughts…
When the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ movie premiered it was already labeled a “tale as old as time”. Since then it has been told and re-told and sequeled and adapted and re-enacted to one degree or another in every Magic Kingdom the world over. There aren’t a lot of surprises left in the old girl.
Whereas ‘Tangled’ is not only new and hip in the live performance, it was new and hip in the original movie! ‘Beauty’ is Classic Disney, emphasis on classic. I imagine more young girls identify with Belle than ever will with Rapunzel, but our target audience here is the entire family. That’s who you heard laughing at ‘Tangled’… the entire family.
‘Beauty’ has its share of contemporary references, just like ‘Tangled’. But they are just that: mere references. Referring to the back of the prop as “the backside of water” is clever, suddenly breaking into a Rod Serling imitation is… just a reference.
‘Tangled’ had Mother Gothel for a villain, portrayed to great comic effect with a quick-and-simple wig gag that works because it is quick-and-simple. ‘Beauty’ has Gaston for the villain portrayed with the long-and-belabored assistance of two melon/muscles and a wooden box that is constantly being moved and reset. The dialogue between the characters, and any hoped-for humor, is upstaged by the pointless repositioning of Gaston’s props. At moments like this I picture the writer, trying to match the Mother Gothel bit, but ultimately unwilling to admit that the melons aren’t making it.
My second rule for writers is ‘Don’t waste my time’, but too much of what’s going on in this show feels like filler. This feeling of waste will reach its apex when we have to stall for Belle’s costume change and we’re introduced to the ‘Royal Expert on Princely Behavior’.
This might have been a good moment to involve the attractive females who’ve been assisting the cast. The two ladies could give the Beast his lessons in deportment, building some emotion into the moment, while the other guy could be used for comic relief.
Now there’s some dancing. A lot of dancing, that’s played for laughs, but doesn’t get any. So now there’s more dancing, because more dancing should be even funnier. But isn’t.
Finally Belle enters, looking lovely… and for a moment our hearts are full. And there’s a tender scene between her and Beast. And then they dance. And, watching the Youtube video, the moment is okay… but just okay.
What you can’t see in the video is the banner being held up on stage right displaying the lyrics to the song, ‘Beauty and the Beast’. I had to view a couple different vids before I caught this little detail, and I was overjoyed when I did, because this is a brilliant stroke… and one that I feel has been long overdue in staged character shows.
Since we know this song… and these people and the story… it only makes sense to involve us in the telling. No, not by parading us quickly across a stage with comic props, but raising our hearts and voices in song! The intention here is magnificent, what’s lacking is commitment.
There should be a banner on each side of the stage, and – seeing the Beast’s shyness – Belle and the rest of the cast should take a moment to ask us to sing for him. Perhaps we all sing it through once with Belle… and then she takes the Beast’s arm and they dance through the second chorus.
With the added involvement of the two lovely ladies, and our singing with the rest of the cast, how could anyone remain unmoved by the chance to assure our beloved Beast that he is lovable and loved?
Now Gaston returns to incite us to “Kill the Beast!” and they face off and – after a brief bit of comic fisticuffs – there follows a whole series of bits that fall flat (and which were apparently cut in subsequent performances). Finally, Beast gets hit with an arrow and then a knife and now we’re at the true magic moment where it all pays off: Belle says, “I love you”, and out come ‘The Buckets’.
Again, while we should be focused on the interaction of the cast we’re distracted by props. The low-lying dry ice fog is obviously meant to lend a mystical visual element to the Beast’s transformation. But it doesn’t. No matter what the intention was, it adds nothing but something to watch that takes us out of what should be the emotional climax of the show.
The great Dick Nunis had a favorite saying: K.I.S.S. – Keep it simple, stupid. If the transformation were simply a moment where Belle watched and reacted while the rest of the cast transformed Beast into the Prince (and where Belle didn’t have to hand him his crown?!), we could have enjoyed the moment through her eyes and emotions. Instead, it feels like the story doesn’t end… it just stops.
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As I said, I watched several different videos of each of the shows to make sure I wasn’t jumping to conclusions on the basis of only one good – or bad – audience. So, in the interest of fair play, here is a recorded performance of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ I found that drew rapturous laughter and applause… from a preview audience of Annual Pass Holders. Video courtesy of www.dapsmagic.com.
The Fantasy Faire Stage is a fine new performance space for Disneyland Entertainment to fill. But like all theme park shows, the creative process doesn’t end with an opening day. The evidence suggests that these shows will continue to evolve, polish and improve. Since themed entertainment is all about the guests’ experience it is up to us to listen, learn and respond… and to do what’s necessary to draw from them the desired reactions and feelings. If we’re not consistently getting the laughs and tears we’re seeking, it’s not their fault… it’s our job to make it right.