Shouldn’t a musical about dispelling clichés at least make a conscious effort to avoid them? Dennis T. Giacino’sDisenchanted!, which just opened at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, purports to rip apart Disney’s Technicolor canon and show us what the women at their centers would really have endured. But all Giacino’s tedious take accomplishes is making you long for even just a hint of the mystical make-believe and creativity on which Disney films have always traded.
“We princesses from the original fairy tales are none too happy with the way all those ‘magical’ storybooks and ‘classic’ animated movies, not to mention all those ‘realistic’ theme park shows portray us,” says our de facto host, Snow White (Michelle Knight) at the outset.
“They make us look weak!”, chimes in Sleeping Beauty (Jen Bechter). “Like helpless damsels in distress!”, adds Cinderella (Becky Gulsvig).
“Who do nothing more than sit around and wait for their prince to come,” concludes Snow White.
Maybe so. But the revue that follows hardly acts as a corrective. Isn’t Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, who takes an active role in changing an enchanted monster to a handsome prince, fairly strong on her own? How is she improved by giving her a song called “Insane!”, in which she’s straitjacketed to a throne and complains of singing kitchen utensils and picking her boyfriend’s, uh, waste after taking him for a walk? This number, the first after the introduction (the spirited, if restless, “One More Happily Ever After”) shows that Giacino just wants to make fun of Disney’s characters, not really live up to his own premise. This continues with a drunken Ariel (The Little Mermaid), a hyper-German Rapunzel leading the most repetitive song (“Not V’one Red Cent,” a tuneless sing-along), a magic carpet–riding Jasmine (Aladdin) who blandly complains of her blandness, and so on. Giacino is marginally more inspired when commenting on their emotional plights, though “Perfect” (about body image), “Finally” (in which The Princess Who Kissed the Frog crows about breaking down racial barriers), “All I Wanna Do Is Eat,” and another song about their chest sizes as envisioned by men could be about most any woman in the public eye. The best number, Mulan’s “Without the Guy,” actually explores the overarching theme, by looking at how that Chinese princess managed to distinguish herself with women rather than men. The performer playing her, Lulu Picart, is also the evening’s standout, a crack but understated comic who earns her plentiful laughs with subtlety and misdirection rather than bolding and italicizing every word. Soara-Joye Ross, who gave one of the greatest-ever New York Musical Theatre Festival performances five years ago in Cross That River, does, however, scorch her way through her one-note (and one-scene) turn. And the others are all obviously talented, if given precious few opportunities to let their natural personalities shine through the gunk. Does Snow need to be clad by costume designer Vanessa Leuck in a leather pseudo-dominatrix dress? Does Cinderella need to be a total dimwit? Does Sleeping Beauty need to always be tired? You sense beneath Giacino’s writing a genuine affection for these women, which makes it all the more surprising he paints so many of them with such a depressing brush.
The set (by Gentry Akens), choreography (Matt West), and direction (Fiely A
. Matias) struggle to sustain the proper whimsical energy, but can only do so much. Any way you look at it, this is a draggy 100 minute-show that’s never as clever as it wants or needs to be to escape the imposing shadow of the properties it parodies. Disney itself did better at dissecting and deconstructing its own ethos in Ever After, as did Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine with Into the Woods. Unlike them, however, Disenchanted! evinces no insight and takes no risks, too often feeling like its own kind of Sleeping Beauty who’s perfectly happy staying in bed.