By Bryson David Hoff
Walt Disney. By the end of the year, odds are every person reading this review will have partaken in some form of entertainment from one of the many offshoots and subsidiaries of the company that bares his name.
In his life, the man reached the pinnacle of fame and built a brand centered on wholesome, thoughtful entertainment that persists to this day. However, he was also a bigoted perfectionist whose company was built on the backs of thousands of employees who received no credit for their contribution to the cultural landscape of America. This dichotomy is the chief concern of Chicago Opera Theater’s The Perfect American.
The opera covers the last three months of Disney’s life as he attempts to stave off death by late-stage lung cancer. The proceedings also include multiple flashbacks, both to real and invented events, creating a portrait that is more impressionistic than biographical. The tycoon’s impending death both exacerbates his fear of mortality (in both the bodily and historical sense) and awakens the demons of his past in the form of the specter of a former employee who was fired for trying to unionize Walt Disney Studios in order to press for due credit for their contribution to the Disney myth.
Though the ensemble does not have any weak links, the show hinges on its lead performance by baritone Justin Ryan, who graces the stage not only with a mellifluous voice, but also note-perfect acting. He deftly captures both the alluring charisma of the real Disney as well as the private mania inherent in a person whose response to a world of death, conflict and uncertainty is a seemingly endless supply of platitudes about “magic” and “dreams.” The subtleties in his performance make his Walt Disney sympathetic to the audience without excusing any of his deep, deep personality flaws.
Director Kevin Newbury’s staging amplifies the strengths of his lead’s performance in his decision to keep all of the action confined to Disney’s hospital room. The effect is to keep the reality and inevitability of his death constantly present, as well as to suggest that, rather than the time jumps simply being a convention of composer Philip Glass’ post-modernist sensibilities, the flashbacks and imagined scenes are literally taking place inside Disney’s mind. This creates a thematic unity that ameliorates the issues many critics took with the work’s premiere production in Madrid in 2011.
Those critics also took issue with the plainspoken libretto penned by Rudy Wurlitzer, however in this environment the intent becomes clearer. His words are plain because his subject, for all of his flaws, is a straight shooter with a Midwesterner’s corn-fed affability. He deals so often in platitudes because that is how his subject faces the great many things in his world that cannot be solved through sheer will. If it seems to lack in artistry, it is because his subject, much as he paints himself as a visionary is, to paraphrase Wurlitzer’s libretto, not an artist, only a mildly successful CEO.
Glass’ brand of post-modernist music may, admittedly, be a tough pill to swallow for some audience members whose ears may not be accustomed to his brand of minimalism, however, for those looking to acquire such an ear this would be an excellent “gateway opera.” The score is moody, roiling and sensitive, evoking the very sense that Disney seems to have that something of great import is perpetually imminent.
On the whole, this new production of The Perfect American is a true testament to the creative power at work at Chicago Opera Theater and should be seen as a gold standard for how to stage this young piece. Hopefully more companies will mount further productions in the years ahead. Opera has struggled for years now to remain relevant in the broader cultural conversation, and this work, an in-depth examination of what drives a man to try to remake the world in his own image and what that means to the ordinary people who must depend on him for their living, is starkly, beautifully current.
The Chicago Opera Theater presents “The Perfect American” on April 30 at the The Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St. More information and tickets are available here.