From the moment of its creation, Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring was controversial. Upon its 1913 premiere with the Ballets Russes in Paris, the savage, jagged-edged piece famously incited a riot that has gone down in history. Many years later, when the animation impresario Walt Disney first heard the fragmented, modernist score, a light bulb went off.
A photograph from December 1939 finds Disney showing Stravinsky a series of storyboards for an upcoming film called Fantasia. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring would be used in the piece, but Disney's storyline wouldn't come close to matching Stravinsky's original concept. Rather than explore the advent of springtime, Disney's version would rearrange his music and change its intentions completely, with a story about rampaging dinosaurs on the loose in a primitive version of earth. In the years after the film's release, Stravinsky was known to use words like "execrable" to describe what Fantasia did to his score.
No wonder playwright Frederick Stroppel thought this subject was intriguing. His 80-minute Small World imagines this December day in 1939, when Walt (Mark Shanahan) and Igor (Stephen D'Ambrose) have a particularly fraught meeting in the Disney screening room to watch a rough cut of the film. He also envisions the figures during two other points, the first after Fantasia, a critical success but financial failure, was released, and much later, when both men have passed into the great beyond.
To borrow a descriptor from a different Walt Disney creation, Small World is just "goofy." Whatever drama there may have been between these men in real life, none of it carries over in this Penguin Rep production, which Joe Brancato directs at 59E59 Theaters. It's clear that Stroppel was aiming for high drama, a work that says important things about life and art, success and failure, and about what it takes to stick to your instincts instead of selling out. The result, however, is yet another Odd Couple-style tale of comically mismatched partners.
At times, Small World has a certain amount of potential. A few laughs are well earned when Walt insists that Igor wrote Peter and the Wolf ("Prokofiev? Are you sure?" the latter asks), and they're heartier, later on, when Igor tells Walt how much he loves his famous character, Bugs Bunny ("'Vat's up, Doc?' Hilarious," Igor says). And audience members will nod with recognition when Walt suddenly hatches the idea of the Disney rerelease process ("If anybody wants to see it in the meantime, I'll say, 'Nope, sorry – it's in the vault!'") But overall, the piece lacks the deep psychological underpinnings and tension to communicate both men's individual struggles. The discussions of art and commerce are unoriginal, and the humor stays at this easy, lowball level throughout.
Still, the performances are charming. Shanahan finds Walt's heart below the petulant, childlike surface, and even hints at the sinister, particularly during digressions about Walt's alleged anti-Semitism and Nazi sympathizing. (On the opposite end of the spectrum, he does a hilarious Mickey Mouse impression, too.) D'Ambrose delivers Igor's warmth and caution quite impressively. Watching him is akin to feeling like you're in a room with a kindly grandfather. Though Brancato could afford to have both characters dig deeper than they do, the pair have a natural camaraderie that's enjoyable to watch.
Igor's black three-piece suit tells us all we need to know about his financial status. Walt's brown-on-brown outfit creates a man who can't really afford (or chooses not to purchase) stylish clothes. Patricia E. Doherty's costumes add the right extra touches to help define their personalities. James J. Fenton's set is noteworthy for its walls of storyboards depicting both the entirety of the Fantasia Rite of Spring sequence, as well as musical phrases from Stravinsky's score. Christina Watanabe's lighting nicely evokes the hazy atmosphere of being in an old cinema.
Although the play is clearly written as a loving homage, Small World is best for the casual Disney fans who don't know much more about Fantasia than what they've read on Wikipedia. As for Disneyphiles, they're better off sticking to their well-worn DVDs.
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