Picture it. Burbank. 1941. Walt Disney (portrayed by actor/playwright Cameron Darwin Bossert in his play Burbank: Walt Disney in Crisis) is struggling to keep his studio in business and his dream of making cutting-edge animated movies alive. Key animator Arthur Harold Babitsky (better known as Art Babbitt, creator of Goofy, played by Ryan Blackwell), has chosen to lead a strike against the studio and to encourage the formation of a union, in spite of his well-paid status. Babbitt is inspired to take his stand when he becomes acquainted with one of the many underpaid women working as inkers and painters in the “Nunnery,” Betty Ann Dunbar (Kelley Lord).
Bossert writes and acts the part of Disney with definite quirk and eccentricity, although his mush mouth delivery sometimes prevents his words from reaching the audience. He definitely captures Disney’s passion, as does Blackwell in the part of Babbitt; the friction created between these two egoists is engaging enough to carry the viewer beyond the otherwise dry subject matter of corporate unionization.
Bossert’s script successfully juxtaposes the struggle of artistic creation against corporate necessity, calling out both Disney and Babbitt’s motives when they arise from questionable priorities, especially where Betty Ann Dunbar is concerned. Disney manipulates Betty Ann, promoting her to animator and using her in his favor against the strike; Babbitt tries to get her to step up and protest, but she values her job and her new salary more than the principles he is taking up on her behalf. Lord’s portrayal of Dunbar is earnest and appealing, even in such a spineless role.
Although Burbank: Walt Disney in Crisis occasionally has its actors delivering monologues out to the audience, the most compelling drama occurs from the interactive scenes between the actors themselves; more of this would have absolutely been welcome. Nevertheless, the play does entertain and inform, revealing the financial struggles Disney went through to make such iconic films as Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi, even in the wake of Snow White’s success. Bossert also managed to squeeze in the fact that Disney attempted to block Adriana Caselotti, the voice of Snow White, from getting other work, in order to not “spoil the illusion” of the character.
Who can imagine entertainment without Disney? To think that he was already mulling over The Little Mermaid in the 1930’s, a film they didn’t get made until over 50 years later, and it was well worth the wait, for it would never have made such technical achievements had it been made sooner.
Direction, credited to the theater company, Thirdwing, is suitable, as are the non-descript costumes by Yolanda Balaña. All told, Burbank: Walt Disney in Crisis is an enjoyable cross-section of a time in the life of Disney as a business, with some thought-provoking notions about the cost of making art.
Burbank: Walt Disney in Crisis (through September 18, 2022)
The Wild Project, 195 East 3rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.thirdwing.info/
Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission