“The intermission is over.”
With that bold pronouncement Thursday night from Daniel Lamarre, CEO at Cirque du Soleil, Walt Disney World welcomed its circus-in-residency back to Disney Springs, the resort’s shop-and-dine district, with an all-new show – the first since Cirque’s La Nouba wrapped a two-decade run there in 2017.
By intermission, Lamarre means more than just the pause in their own production. The debut of DRAWN TO LIFE, which finds Cirque partnering with The Walt Disney Company in a creative capacity for the very first time, heralds the return of live entertainment to the Florida-based theme park empire in a major way.
The big white tent that houses the newly refurbished Soleil stage was packed to the gills on opening night, with guests including “Full House” star John Stamos, Disney Parks Chair Josh D’Amaro, top Cirque creatives, and bookoos of bigwigs from the Mouse House – all with nary a hint of pandemic, save for the mandatory face masks on audience members.
DRAWN TO LIFE is not modified, adapted, socially distanced, “reimagined for unprecedent times,” or performed behind masks. It is a lavish, full-fledged, uncompromising spectacle of big-budget entertainment with an expansive cast. That’s one way you know it’s a Disney production. The other is that it opens with a dead dad.
Whereas I understood La Nouba to have been fairly abstract in substance (never having seen it myself), DRAWN TO LIFE has a story to tell: a young girl named Julie is grieving the loss of her father, an animator, when she discovers a magical adventure he left behind just for her. The portal for his parting gift awaits her at the drawing desk in their basement, where ink and paint come to life.
There is no dialogue or narration here, just good old-fashioned circusry executed in state-of-the-art fashion. Deciphering each scene’s intended meaning isn’t always easy, and some come close to an overstayed welcome. But new acts always arrive in time to wow, giving this 90-minute, intermission-less production just the clip it needs to get by.
Little Julie’s dad must have either worked for Disney or wanted to, because he apparently only drew their intellectual property. A Disney fan myself, I don’t mind that, and I even applaud his penchant for Walt-era storytelling (and his foresight to include Encanto, scheduled for release long after his death). But it does raise a critical eyebrow toward how effectively fused these two disparate brands – Disney and Cirque du Soleil – can be.
I don’t know if “subtle” is how I’d describe the Disney of it all. But the show’s interaction with intellectual property is exquisitely artful and ever so slightly less “COPYRIGHT THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY!” than might be expected. The familiar melodies of animation are sampled more than covered, all elegantly interwoven in Benoît Jutras’s enchanting score. When Disney characters appear, it’s often in silhouette, or otherwise in roughed-out drawing-board sketches. DRAWN TO LIFE is as much an homage to the art of animation as to its particular manifestations in the works of Walt Disney. It is a show that, in its own inexplicit way, contemplates the self-doubt and failure that are the inevitable backbone of any creative victory.
The one Disney-like character who does appear in physical form on stage is an Ursula-ish entity unique to this show. Though she cackles like a sea witch and saunters like a squid, she is in fact a giant wad of crumpled-up papers, the embodiment of all those ideas we throw away when we don’t believe in ourselves. In one inspired sequence, she studies the great Disney villains of yore but lands in a heap of doubt all her own.
DRAWN TO LIFE’s stagecraft and special effects are second to none. People and objects move about the stage – and through the air – in ways they shouldn’t be able to. Skillful lighting, clever theatrics, and expertly rehearsed acrobatics conspire to hide any hint of the “how.” To the naked eye, these effects are indistinguishable from what we might call real magic.
Gasps are widespread, audible, and involuntary. It’s a level of amazement you just won’t find at the theme parks’ Beauty and the Beast: Live on Stage.
Until now, Walt Disney World audiences have not had access to a full-length, Disney-branded theatrical production during their resort stay. Compare that to Shanghai Disneyland Resort, where Broadway shows like The Lion King are staged in Mandarin, or California’s Disneyland Resort, where a Frozen production in the California Adventure theme park aspires to be a miniature Broadway show. It’s a shame that Disney Springs doesn’t have something like a year-round production of Broadway’s Newsies on offer for Florida. But with DRAWN TO LIFE, parkgoers and local Disney fans alike now have a full-fledged theatrical experience to call their own.
There is so much to see in DRAWN TO LIFE that it’s easy to imagine patrons returning for an encore in short order. I’d go back just to marvel at the talent, astounded that there are enough of them to sustain eight to ten shows a week.
Performances are generally offered once or twice nightly, Tuesday through Saturday only, with various exceptions. Intended as a new semi-permanent offering, DRAWN TO LIFE has no end date in sight, and ticket sales are currently available through the end of 2022. More information can be found through the official Walt Disney World Resort website, while tickets are available directly from Cirque du Soleil.
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