The new "Mickey and the Magical Map" at Disneyland offers a solid if predictable storytelling foundation for an energetic musical stage show that's expected to run for years at the Anaheim theme park.
The new show casts the mischievous Mickey Mouse, in his classic role of sorcerer's apprentice from "Fantasia," in a 22-minute musical featuring songs from half a dozen Disney animated films.
During the premiere of the new show I saw Thursday evening, about two dozen dancers and singers performed with a backing soundtrack in a production approaching Broadway quality in the refurbished Fantasyland Theatre.
A onetime home to productions starring Snow White, Pocahontas and even Dick Tracy, the theater had been used in recent years as the meet-and-greet location for the Disney princesses, leaving the stage and the 1,800 seats essentially unused.
I came mostly to see how Disney blended technological advances like an enormous LED screen backdrop and a "talking" King Louis character with live actors and traditional theatrical props and sets.
The "Magical Map" in the title of the show was accomplished with six interconnected LED screens divided vertically into thirds by a pair of largely invisible catwalk stages for the performers.
At first I found the 240-square-foot virtual map to be distractingly jarring with its mix of hand-drawn cartography, computer-rendered characters and even the occasional live-action Mickey all projected on the giant LED screen. Overwhelmed by the constantly in motion digital backdrop, I was unable to distinguish the performers in the steampunk-inspired costumes from the painterly map with everything onstage drawing from the same earthtone palette.
Midway through the show, our host and star Mickey disappeared from the stage and became a digital character on the screen -- causing me to lose touch with our main character and feel like I was watching a movie rather than a live performance. It wasn't until near the finale, when the digital Mickey transformed before our eyes back into a costumed character (with the help of a trap door), that I was able to strike a balance visually between the live and prerecorded performances.
Similar camouflaged LCD screens were used to great effect on the Disney Dream cruise ship in the form of virtual portholes, enchanted artwork and digital dance floors. Unfortunately, the magical map in the Disneyland show left me wondering "Why are they doing this?" rather than "How are they doing this?"
Disney has been using the articulated "talking" characters in smaller shows throughout its parks -- most recently in "Minnie's Fly Girls" and "Disney Dance Crew."
For me, the "talking" King Louie from the "Jungle Book" was the highlight of the show, dancing wildly with his fleet feet and lively long arms. His platypus-like mouth moved in sync with the lyrics to "I Wanna Be Like You" while his blinking eyes enlivened his face.
Another highlight was the princess medley that seamlessly blended together songs by Pocahontas and Mulan -- two characters rarely seen in the park -- with a third tune by Rapunzel.
One of my favorite moments was when a beautifully rendered 18-foot-tall riverboat delivered Tiana onstage between a split in the giant LED screen for "Dig a Little Deeper."
Conversely, I found the "Under the Sea" number by Sebastian the crab from "The Little Mermaid" to be the least successful number of the show. I couldn't get over the fact that the puppeteer singing the lead vocal had his hands shoved deep inside the backside of the crab's shell. He looked way too much like an obstetrician delivering a newborn crustacean -- a visual I couldn't get out of my head.
The jukebox musical featuring a cavalcade of Disney stars has become common practice over the last few years for Disneyland parades, nighttime spectacles and stage shows. And while I prefer the single-story productions once featured at the Fantasyland Theatre, I understand the practical expediency of the multi-character revues. It just makes more sense in terms of flexibility, shelf life and interchangeability. But it doesn't mean I can't long for another staged production of "Aladdin" or "Beauty and the Beast." It never hurts to ask.
For now though, "Mickey and the Magical Map" will serve as a sturdy workhorse for Disneyland -- and probably will for years to come. You can expect new numbers to get swapped in whenever the latest Disney animated feature hits the theaters and maybe even a holiday version of the show here or there.
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