Theater Review: ‘Small World: A Fantasia’

Whose vision is it anyway?

Theater Review: ‘Small World: A Fantasia’
(L–R) Mark Shanahan and Stephen D'Ambrose in “Small World.” (Carol Rosegg)

NEW YORK—The age-old battle of art versus commerce takes center stage in Frederick Stroppel's two-character work, "Small World: A Fantasia,’ presented by Penguin Rep Theatre at 59E59 Theaters. Although the play offers no clear winner, it does bring up some interesting points.

In 1939 California, studio head Walt Disney (Mark Shanahan), basking in the success of his animated masterpiece "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" is hard at work at his latest effort in the genre: "Fantasia."

Disney’s intent on making this his best film yet and invites famed composer/conductor Igor Stravinsky (Stephen D'Ambrose) to see a rough cut of a section of the film and get his input. Disney shows Stravinsky the section of “Fantasia” which features the composer’s work "Rite of Spring,"—the rights of which Disney obtained in, perhaps, not an entirely ethical way.

While Disney is delighted at what he and his team have come up with, Stravinsky is alternatively horrified and incensed at seeing the music he created reduced to what he considers cheap entertainment. He does have some specific ideas about how to fix the picture and is quick to offer them.

As “Small World” makes clear, both Disney and Stravinsky see themselves as immense creative forces, each operating in their own very different playgrounds. Disney claims to have his finger on the pulse of the public. Stravinsky, on the other hand, is more concerned with the creative process for its own sake and is content to appeal to a more upscale audience—those who can appreciate his art.

Yet when the two meet again about a year later, we see that the positions each has previously staked out have shifted somewhat. Disney now proclaims, "I don't let the marketplace shape my work, I shape the marketplace." He wants to be far more than a mere provider of entertainment.

Stravinsky meanwhile chafes that his greatest musical triumphs were early in his career, while his public is cool to his newer creations.

Both men are held prisoners by their visions of what they want to be, how they want to be seen, and their dependence on the financial bottom line. Stravinsky only admits to this latter point when pushed.

The story also raises issues of moral responsibility. Exposed is Disney’s anti-Semitism and his relationship with Germany while war was raging in Europe but had yet to reach the United States. Yet, in one of the most heartfelt sections of the show, Disney recalls his World War I experiences in France as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross. The terrible things he saw there inspired him to draw cartoons on his vehicle in order to give people hope and make them laugh.

Disney also laces into Stravinsky for leaving Russia during the 1917 revolution instead of staying and trying to make his country better. This brings up the question of how much difference one man can actually make in a time of crisis, and how one can make the most lasting impact with one’s life.

As the title of the play might indicate, both Disney and Stravinsky were more alike than either would admit. One of the highlights of the play shows the creative process each man: Disney describes how simple lines on a page can become a living, breathing character; and Stravinsky explains how musical notes, when put in the proper formulation, can result in a cascade of emotional responses.

D'Ambrose, who seems to be channeling Clifton Webb in his performance as Stravinsky, does a good job in presenting as an unbending artist, even when he goes altogether native and becomes part of the Hollywood social set.

As for Shanahan, he shows Disney to be an outwardly jovial sort who can be a rather tough customer when necessary. Shanahan also does a nice turn when showing the once-confident Disney wrestling with self-doubts in the wake of the initial lackluster reception of “Fantasia” by the public. The work was not an acknowledged as a classic until decades later.

Joe Brancato's direction works well, keeping the story tightly focused on the issues raised, with numerous bits of trivia tossed in. But the final scene feels rather contrived as though the playwright tries to end on a forced high note.

While interest in "Small World" will largely depend on how one feels about the two depicted, the play has a lot to say about the lengths one will go to realize their particular artistic vision.

‘Small World: A Fantasia’ Penguin Rep Theatre at 59e59 Theaters 59 E. 59th St. Tickets: 212-279-4200 or Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission) Closes: Oct. 7
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for and a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.