The genius of Bob Fosse was that he would put a dance routine where one did not warrant it and make the choreography vital to the plot or characterizations. Lee Martino's choreography in When You Wish: The Story of Walt Disney, now playing at the Freud Playhouse, erupts in situations a lesser choreographer would ignore and transforms those moments into invigorating pieces. As a result, Martino lifts up this spirited but dated musical.
The musical focuses on Walt Disney's lean years as a struggling animator and producer before Mickey Mouse turned him into a household name. At a time when society underestimates or dismisses him, Walt (Tim Martin Gleason) devises groundbreaking ideas such as inserting live actors into cartoons, adding synchronized sound to cartoons, producing the first feature-length animated film, and building an enormous amusement park so that children of all ages can experience movie magic in the real world. His stubbornness and lack of business sense exasperates his brother and partner, Roy (Andy Umberger), and alienates him from his animators, particularly his star employee, Ub Iwerks (Louis Pardo).
Dean McClure's original score recalls the old-fashioned but pleasant early Jerry Herman shows. Several tunes are lovely, including the two duets, "Someone In Love" and "Avenue of Dreams," for Walt and his loving wife (played by Brandi Burkhardt). His group numbers are peppy, including "Always A Wolf At The Door" and "Mickey Who," with some clever rhyming connecting "Mickey who" with "Don't Call Us. We'll Call You." Unfortunately, the ballads are bland and drag down the show. In a cleverly staged finale, where the talented dancers represent characters from Disney's most famous movies, the musical underscoring lacks the flavor of the original film scores. It is a shame that the producers didn't team up with Disney Theatricals so this scene would have had access to classic tunes like "When You Wish Upon A Star" from Pinocchio, "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes" from Cinderella, or "You Can Fly" from Peter Pan.
The fact that the script does not whitewash Disney's more frustrating traits gives the show depth. The audience sees how Disney could be his own worst enemy. The play also exemplifies his genius for thinking outside the box and ignoring practicality for imagination. Much of the dialogue is impassioned and heartfelt, but the narration, spoken by Roy throughout the show, is mostly expository and repetitive.
Director Larry Raben smartly utilizes mixed media, including animation and visual scenery, building a concrete sense of scene, expanding the show making it look more epic than the budget should allow.
Martino mixes dance crazes of the eras, including Charleston, jazz, and interpretive, with dazzling results. She ingeniously utilizes silhouettes to tie the moves to the film medium. Her dancers are put through the ringer with sequences of choreography demanding both technical precision and stylistic artistry.
As Walt, Gleason has a sturdy voice and inhabits him with spirit and a relatable cluelessness about the real world. Umberger finds humor and strength in the protective brother who lives in his younger brother's shadow but is financially responsible to solve his brother's risky schemes, many which flop. Burkhardt is enchanting as Walt's dutiful and loving wife, Lillian. Her lyrical singing voice makes McClure's melodies sound romantic.
The inspiration for musicalizing Walt Disney's life makes sense. His movies always had an appreciation for memorable melodies. In this present incarnation, though, When You Wish: The Story of Walt Disney lacks the potency that such a genius deserves.