- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

Just in time to soak up its fair share of the cash flowing from the wallets of Republican revelers, the touring company of “On the Record,” the new Disney musical extravaganza, has arrived at Washington’s National Theatre for a two-week stay. It’s a largely enjoyable evening loaded with wonderful, nostalgic tunes tastefully arranged and sung by talented singers who avoid today’s fixation on excessive song-styling and nonstop belting.

“On the Record” apparently started out as something of a conventional Broadway-style musical when it began its tour in November 2004. A young singer enters a studio to record some songs that will hopefully boost her career. She ends up doing a whole batch of tunes gathered from Disney films — mostly feature-length cartoons — from the last 60 years or so. She’s occasionally joined by others and is sometimes supplanted by them, directed by the backstage wizardry of a recording engineer whose voice is heard but who is never seen.

Or at least that was the show’s original conceit. By the time it reached Washington, the thin, frame-tale plot was gone, the “names” given to the characters no longer mattered, and the show had pretty much turned into a musical revue shimmering with the ghost of its original structure, which mustn’t have been working very well. Strange little touches of character development nonetheless emerge from time to time, giving the distinct impression that this remains a work in progress that will probably morph again.

What we have left is a largely unstructured evening of hit songs loosely grouped by theme and strung together in small, rhapsodic production numbers. The show is still set in a stylized recording studio, with the small orchestra cleverly performing onstage in two movable, multilevel towers, conducted by the pianist and able to stay in sync by means of unobtrusive video monitors. Meanwhile, the small cast of singer-dancers does their collective thing in bargain basement costumes, with various square cages and rolling boom mikes as props.

While theatergoers expecting a full-blown Broadway-style show are likely to be disappointed, music lovers, particularly the older and the middle-aged, will relax right into it. This show, musically, is boomer heaven, conjuring up the era of 1950s TV, when every Sunday, “The Wonderful World of Disney” served up bits and pieces and sometimes the entirety of Walt’s old movies and feature-length cartoons — a form he invented — and the lush, Romantic and often witty music that was composed for them.

It is quite astonishing to hear the breadth and depth of the brilliant songwriting that emerged from the Disney movie studios during their high period from the mid-1930s to about 1970. From the scampering mice of “Cinderella” (“Some Day My Prince Will Come”) to the seven dwarfs of “Snow White” (“Heigh-Ho!”), from Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio (“When You Wish Upon a Star”) to “Mary Poppins” (“A Spoonful of Sugar”), an amazing number of these songs were nominated for or won Academy Awards, with some of them falling into the vernacular.

Even after the studio began to fumble its legacy in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was still capable of rising to produce hits like the Elton John-scored “Lion King” in 1994. The sheer volume and brilliance of this musical legacy is almost breathtaking when sampled in one sitting. Boomers, in particular, will literally see their childhoods passing before them as “On the Record” unfolds.

The orchestra and cast do a swell job of selling the songs, and music fans who appreciate the high period of movie tunes will forgive the show’s structural and dramatic shortcomings and just enjoy the sheer genius of the music.

A hat tip to the orchestra and singers, including Kaitlin Hopkins, Ashley Brown, Andrew Samonsky, Richard Easton and the small chorus. Their singing was first-rate, never strained, and blessedly free of phony earnestness.

**

WHAT: Disney Theatrical Productions’ “On the Record”

WHERE: National Theatre

WHEN: Tuesdays to Sundays through Jan. 30, evenings at 8 except Sunday evenings at 6:30. Matinees on Saturdays at 2 and Sundays at 1:30.

TICKETS: $40 to 85 plus service charge.

PHONE: Call Telecharge at 800/477-7400 or visit Telecharge.com.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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