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"Small World: A Fantasia" brings some Disney magic to a tragic Connecticut town

"Small World: A Fantasia" brings some Disney magic to a tragic Connecticut town

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Newtown, Connecticut, was the scene of one of the most hideous mass slaughters in American history. Driving into this quaint New England town, it is impossible to miss the sad reminders of that horror, cutout angels along the roadside and tributes of sympathy from around the world in the town hall.

But through January 27, 2012, that same town hall is being treated to a gentle reminder that the world can be a better place and that, yes, it is possible to have magical days.

"Small World: A Fantasia" by Frederick Stroppel is receiving its world premiere in Newtown courtesy of Stray Kats Theatre Company, which mounts its productions in an upstairs meeting room at Edmond Town Hall, with minimal sets and all-professional casts.

In "Small World," Stroppel imagines a series of meetings between Walt Disney and Igor Stravinsky that begin when "Fantasia" is still in production and end in the afterlife. There Walt and Iggy (as Walt calls him in the play) can at last put their on-again, off-again battles to rest and contemplate their legacies.

Stravinsky and Walt did meet. Once. And it didn't go well. Invited to see a screening of "Fantasia," Stravinsky was outraged by what the studio had done to his Sacre de Printemps. In "Hello, Goodbye, Hello ," Craig Brown quotes Stravinsky: "I remember someone offering me a score, and when I said I had my own, that someone saying, "But it is all changed." It was indeed. The instrumentation had been improved by such stunts as having the horns play their glissandi an octave higher in the Danse de la terre. The order of pieces had been shuffled, too, and the most difficult of them eliminated, though this did not save the musical performance, which was execrable." The two also differed on what Walt had promised for the rights. Walt said $5,000. Iggy remembered $10,000.

Out of this fascinating scrap of history, Stroppel has spun a highly enjoyable and very funny . . . well, fantasia is a good word for it. You don't have to know very much about Disney history to find this play enjoyable. I did a quick survey at intermission and found I was the only one who could be described as a "Disney buff." But people were clearly enjoying the show, and for anyone steeped in Disney lore the piece is filled with gems.

Copyright Simon & Shuster. All rights reserved

I especially like the bit when the volcanically outraged Stravinsky threatens legal action and Walt replies with a smile, "Oh, I wouldn't tangle with my lawyers."

At the heart of the dispute is their competing visions of art. Stravinsky the tortured artiste struggling for some sort of ultimate truth, the audience be damned, and Walt, the showman, creating new forms of both art and entertainment in which the reaction of the crowd and the box office receipts are the only true arbiters of success.

Walt is riding high in the first scene, but when next the two antagonists meet their roles seem to have changed. Walt is down in the dumps following the poor showing of "Fantasia" and Stravinsky, resplendent in tennis togs, has gone Hollywood ("Call me Iggy!"). He's drunk the show biz Kool Aid to the extent that he's pitching Walt on using another of his scores. Walt instantly sees the ploy for what it is: Another player trying to cut a deal to fund his lifestyle.

(L to R) Robert Resnikoff as Igor Stravinksy and
Scott Bryce as Walt Disney

"You could go to infinity!" says Stravinsky, urging Walt to be bold in his choice of projects.

"And beyond," agrees Walt, who never loses faith in his own creative visions even when he has to cut corners.

"We're creating a whole new aesthetic in 'Dumbo,'" he tells Iggy. "Cutting out all the extraneous stuff, just focusing on the characters and the action."

"Because it's cheap," Stravinsky notes acidly.

Finally, in the afterlife (is it heaven or is it hell?), the two men have a chance to consider the lives they've lived. The newly arrived Stravinsky is horrified to realize that he can no longer compose new music. Walt who's been there a while is more sanguine. "It's nice here," he says, "there's no pain," suggesting that the ability to be a creator, an artist, is as much a curse as a gift.

But if Stravinsky can no longer write new scores, he and Walt have no trouble remembering one song from their days on the temporal plane. Their duet of "When You Wish Upon A Star" may very well bring a tear to your eye.

(L to R) Robert Resnikoff and Scott Bryce in Walt's office in "Small World: A Fantasia"

Stroppel does an excellent job of capturing what made (and continues to make) Walt Disney such a linchpin of American culture - his cockeyed and endless optimism and a steely resolve wrapped up in an aw-shucks demeanor. And behind the laughs, the play has a fair bit to say about art, its commodification, and the role of popular culture.

Scott ("As The World Turns") Bryce must share equal credit in the success of the Disney character. He doesn't look particularly like Walt but he brings a lightness of touch to the performance that creates an utterly believable and ultimately irresistible Walt. Robert Resnikoff, a well-known Connecticut Shakepearean actor, navigates Stravinsky's journey from irate artist to Hollywood player and back again, with aplomb.

If you are within driving distance of Newtown, do put this show on your calendar.

"Small World: A Fantasia" is performed Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm, through January 27 at the Edmond Town Hall, 45 Main Street (Rte 25) in Newtown Connecticut. Tickets are $31 and refreshments, including wine, are available before the show and at intermission. The phone is (203) 514-2221.

Tickets can be purchased online, via PayPal, at www.straykatstheatrecompany.org

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  • Walt as one-dimensional "showman" and show business mogul; Stravinsky as a similarly shallow "tortured artiste." Based on the description, it seems a superficial and inaccurate view of  both Walt and Stravinsky.

    No idea why people need to use Walt  (or Stravinsky) as a vehicle for this kind of story. There are dozens of more accurate examples in Hollywood history.

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