Culture: Theatre

Review: The Perfect American

The Perfect American

Tearing down our cultural icons is now a genre all of its own. Alfred Hitchcock has just been tried on the witness box by a jury of mediocre hindsight in The Girl and Hitchcock, it is currently candelabras at dawn for Michael Douglas, Bobby Crush and their bewigged attempts at playing Liberace and BBC Four’s lifeblood seems to be morbid biographical fare about every comic who made us laugh in our childhoods. And just like two cute Disney penguins tap-dancing up the entrance plank of a Disney Noah’s Ark, these things tend to come in pairs. About to fly over the horizon with a flock of cute bluebirds is Saving Mr Banks, Tom Hanks and director John Lee Hancock’s take on the delicate genesis of what became 1964’s Mary Poppins (these biographies cannot function unless they have a classic to pin their story around – otherwise we might get bored). But the first to land on Mary Poppins outstretched finger is Philip Glass and the English National Opera / Teatro Real’s The Perfect American. Yes, that is enough Disney metaphors for now.

Straddling a Missouri hometown world of Walt’s youth and the gated Burbank affluence of his later life, The Perfect American is Glass and director Phelim McDermott’s loose imagining of the House of Mouse’s founding father and his final months. Less the singing dwarves and more The Singing Detective, this new production is a deathbed of a bio-op with clunking flashbacks thrown into the ring every time the main story is on the ropes. There are no hummingbirds singing Snow White to life here. This is a Disney with all the wonder ripped out of him – a racist, territorial and selfish shell of a man. Christopher Purves plays him with an appropriate CEO’s sense of control and business acumen (a sub-plot about a disgruntled and veteran animator should have been the story, not interrupted it) but – aside from an eleventh hour bond between Walt and a dying boy – there is no relationship between Disney and his empire of children and childhood. Purves’ Disney is no monster. But neither is he a showman, a man-child or anything else we think we might know about the man responsible for the duvets, toys and height charts of our youth. Only the power of the solid chorus brings in any sense of wonder as they gather and flee like Sleeping Beauty wildlife.

Unlike the flawless sense of movement as seen in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, nothing flows here. For a piece to go to such visual pains to depict and explore motion itself via cutting edge projection work, the production is decidedly static – stuck in a loop of flimsy flashbacks with no sense of character development. Deliberate or not, a piece about Uncle Walt should not feature such weak female leads when the man himself pioneered strong female characters. A bedside nurse is meant to be a sort of Snow White, but that is all. Dennis Potter would have got her dressed in scarlet and belting out Whistle While You Work as Cinderella’s mice did The Twist throughout the ward. Likewise, the [brilliant] projections are awash with the wildlife that flanked each and every animation Walt was personally responsible for. Yet there is no comment or irony made when a recurring owl that Disney feels remorse for killing as a kid keeps flapping into events with the theatrical aplomb of an A-level drama student from Surrey (trust me, I’ve been there). Similarly, a second act opener of an Andy Warhol cameo is fun and suitably whiny, but is commemorating a 1960s which this production is not acknowledging. Other US icons such as Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln are name-checked, but tell us as much about Walt’s mind-set as Pinocchio tells us about blue whales. Walt and his philosophies – not to mention his alleged racism – were of course from a different era of American life. But where are the comments on the 1960s rise of television, feminism, black rights, sexism, youth culture and the Vietnam War? Disney was not averse to new technologies and progression. Far from it. But this 1966 feels more 1946. The kids which Disney cinematically reared were key to the mid-1960s youth movement. Yet, The Perfect American feels like the student and civil rights riots are being muzzled offstage. Disney might well have continued to the end in a vacuum of nostalgia but should Glass and this production do the same?

Philip Glass’s rotating rhythms are far from a natural fit for Disney. Devoid of melody and sentiment, the sombre tones make their points about the crumbling of an American legend. But surely an opera about Walt Disney must contain at least the smallest hints of enchantment, even for contrary and critical reasons. Percussions tick and stack up, supporting that sense of motion but the production sorely needs its equivalent of Walt collaborators the Sherman Brothers (The Jungle Book, Mary Poppins) to buoy up the lyrics and melodies. Maybe Glass would have benefitted from taking a leaf from that cultural icon genre and creating a piece centred around the production of a Disney classic? Or looking at a failed Disney project that barely got off the drawing board. Plenty did.

That is not to say The Perfect American holds no magic. Visually, this is a glorious sepia flick-book of a contemporary opera. Dan Potra’s wondrous design work is strikingly realised. This is a golden age Burbank of visor-clad animators and their artist aprons, pencil moustaches and pencil books. Again, the very idea of motion dominates. Lines of animators ebb and pause like unfurling zoetropes and mattress-sized sketch books snap and bite like forest wolves. Chart paper, circles and pencil lines become a visual Greek chorus – forever dominating the weaker points of story. Full praise to animators 59 Productions as celluloid scratches swarm across the stage and Mickey Mouse head and ears morph into cancerous cells before ballooning into rabbits, mice and squirrels. The use of high-end projections and Jon Clark’s lighting is masterful, aptly taking centre stage with McDermott’s cast. Yet for a piece that is Walt circa Mary Poppins and that live-action/cartoon mix heyday there is no interplay with the animated figures. All Disney trademarks are skilfully avoided as is any libel but so too is any sense of wonder. 2007’s comedy film Enchanted was far more successful at taking a scathing yet warm microscope to the Disney brand, albeit not the originator himself.

The Perfect American is Disney as American animator, as chronicler of motion and emotion but not America itself. This Walt is almost repulsed by the Americana of white picket fences, barbershops and apple pies, vexed that his first theme park has now been encroached by ugly gas stations and diners. With the exception of Dumbo (1941), The Perfect American does remind just how non-American the animated features Disney oversaw in life actually were. The [animated] Disney brand was pinned happy ever after to European folklore (Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio). The Perfect American wants us to see a Walt almost repulsed by the mid-town trappings his dying self has to go back to either indulge with or endure. Yet Glass and director McDermott have overlooked how Disney did not just produce cartoons. It presents in great depth his theme park plans and obsessions with creating an experience matching that moment when the child Walt and brother Roy first witness a steam train. However, ol’ Uncle Walt also oversaw countless live action films – Pollyanna, Old Yeller, The Incredible Journey, The Parent Trap – that were dripping in Americana. Maybe this is one contradiction too many for Philip Glass or anyone to try and lay bare. But perhaps it is indicative of a naïve surmising of Disney too.

The English National Opera and Teatro Real’s The Perfect American continues at London’s Coliseum Theatre until Friday June 28.

Mark O’Connell is the author of Catching Bullets – Memoirs of a Bond Fan and can be found at

Words: Mark O’Connell

Jump to comments
Scroll Top