The Casual Reporter: The New Show Will Probably Succeed

Friday, March 20, 2009

The New Show Will Probably Succeed

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show with Mickey and Friends is already a week old counting from the "soft opening" (it officially opens April 4, 2009). Here's the part I am reluctant to admit: assessed objectively, and theatrically speaking, the Disney characters in the show are not an abomination and do not destroy the integrity of the human performers. In fact, for a Disney audience, their presence works in most parts of the scenes they are in. They are not offensive and their presence does not emasculate the authentic elements of the show.

But let's keep that between you and me. I'm still uncomfortable, as a de facto ambassador of the Old American West, talking to a plastic head that "speaks" without moving its lips by bobbing its head to the rhythm of a pre-recorded voice track - as if it were real and we are in the Old West. However, when I pretend it's real the audience plays along and the theatrical convention works. That's always the case in theatre. I'm only "Buffalo Bill" to the degree my fellow actors and I pretend I am. Commitment by the actors to believing the unbelievable is what creates the illusion and allows the audience to suspend their disbelief and accept the "reality". Then we all look like theatrical geniuses and the experience for the guests is magical.

The opening scene with Auguste works because he pretends the characters are real, but there's more to it than that. The characters' giant smiles are critical. Psychology studies show that when we see someone smile we have a reflex to smile ourselves, creating an instant rapport. (Something we can all take home with us.) Add silly voices and animated movements and unless you're fully committed to being jaded you will likely find yourself grinning along. Once you grin, you've accepted their presence and you can pretend they're real. That's how the Disney magic works.

The Cattle Trail Scene, which I now call the Camp Scene, works with the characters in it. In addition to their contagious smiles, the characters dance and sing, which is what the characters do best. When the stunts join in dancing at the end, their movements and energy remind me of Zorba the Greek (a classic musical film featuring a rough old Greek codger who dances).

Theatrically speaking, the Camp Scene is an improvement over what the Cattle Trail scene had become - without the chickens, without the trick roping, with often aimless dialogue and without cowboys believing in it, the Cattle Trail scene had tended towards being long, listless, and lifeless. The Camp Scene is tighter and better theatre although it no longer reflects the living tableau of the American West that W.F. Cody envisioned. The cowboys retain their "authenticity" by establishing their identity in other scenes like the Cavalcade, Rodeo Games, and Cavalry.

My feeling is the scene is about 2 songs too long and the fight among the cooks, although excellent fight choreography, is under-provoked and makes for an awkward introduction to the Disney characters. The Autistic Coordinator ... woops! I mean the Artistic Coordinator (Freudian slip) sorry about that ... has assured me that the fight feels contrived because the costume of one of the cooks isn't different enough from the other cooks. As soon as his costume is sorted out, it'll all come together. OK. Whatever.

W.F. Cody saw his original Wild West Show not just as great entertainment, but as a living history lesson of the American West. His show shaped history almost as much as it reflected it. Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in Disney Village was never meant to have the same objective. Although based on the original, the intent beyond pure entertainment was not to tell the story of the West but the story of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. What always made the show work, regardless which century it played in or what the higher-minded objective, was it's entertainment value: it was and is an entrepreneurial venture. If our public wants Disney characters, give them Disney characters. In less than a week we'll ask the public their opinion and see if Disney's marketing research is accurate or not. I'm reluctant to admit they may have been right on this one.

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