“The Perfect American” by Philip Glass should be considered a classic among opera’s minimalist repertoire for its surrealistic portrayal of iconic Walt Disney through a hard-hitting libretto and elliptical orchestration.
Long Beach Opera gave the US premiere of “The Perfect American” at Terrace Theater Sunday afternoon in a stunning presentation made all the more impressive since this cutting-edge company survives on a shoestring budget. Artistic director Andreas Mitisek seems to have a knack for making more out of less as evidenced by seasons of innovative offerings such as Frid’s “The Diary of Anne Frank” and Adams’ “The Death of Kilnghoffer” of which LA Opera passed up. “The Perfect American” already received a world premiere at Teatro Real Madrid in 2013 to mixed reviews.
Under Kevin Newbury’s visionary direction for the abstract, Rudolph Wurlitzer’s libretto proved an ideal fit as the story is based on Peter Stephan Jungk’s book “Der Koenig von Amerika” (The King of America, 2001) that provides a fictional account of the last few months of Walt Disney’s life. In overt and clever terms, Disney is described as an egocentric, idealistic, narrow-minded boss like figure with little creativity of his own – in addition to being a habitual cigarette smoker who succumbed to lung cancer at age 65. High-profile figures like Disney often become fair game and although accusations dogged him for years, many of his inner circle dismiss them as unfounded.
Those with healthcare plan issues will appreciate the production’s stark, metallic hospital room setting where scenes from the two-act opera take place. Walt (as he insists on being called) is dressed in pajamas or hospital gown and holds court either in a bed or walking around with an attached IV as he reminisces with his brother, family, nurses and Wilhelm Dantine (a former disgruntled animation employee) about his boyhood in Marceline, Missouri, business dealings, immortality and apple pie version of truth, justice and the American way.
The more atmospheric moments included video projections of a model train, rat, X-ray, illuminated in/out lighting, especially during Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Choir’s angelic behind stage interludes, costumes sporting a classy Hollywood movie look (Zane Pihlstrom) and super titles – to reinforce the text’s assertion that, “In Disney World the sky is bluer than blue.”
Glass’ evocative, pulsating and very tonal score was given a stylish reading by the contracted orchestra under Mitisek. But the afternoon belonged to Justin Ryan’s riveting performance of Walt Disney. His rich bass baritone voice and nuanced acting gestures navigated every musical sequence with assurance and resonance throughout.
Standout cast members included Zeffin Quinn Hollis’ commanding interpretation of Walt’s brother Roy, Suzan Hanson’s crystal-toned Lillian (Walt’s wife), Jamie Chamberlin’s vivacious Hazel George and Scott Ramsay’s Wilhelm Dantine – his sweet tenor voice settling in pitch as the role’s intensity progressed, particularly in heated exchanges with Walt over unionization.
Of course there were scenes out of the outrageous or bizarre such as a spirited appearance by Andy Warhol (Kyle Erdos-Knapp), Walt’s birthday cake celebration that dissolved into an eerie collage between his sisters and girl wearing a featured owl headdress and compelling dialogues between Josh, the wispy boy patient (Rana Ebrahimi) and Abraham Lincoln, a quasi-puppet with distorted head hanging from its metal limbs.
“The Perfect American” takes us on a two-hour journey through an avant-garde magical kingdom of choo choo trains and animated animals where we are told, “Dreams can really come true.” After all, when the Anaheim Disneyland opened in 1957, every kid and adult wanted to experience Americana through its amusement rides and credo that never-never land is more enjoyable than reality. Walt Disney and his brother Roy became leaders of this fantasy driven movement which sky rocketed into a global conglomerate since The Walt Disney Company’s founding in 1923. The final performance is March 18, so be sure to check out this spellbinding opera.