Some Disenchanted! evening

Don’t mistake the princess parody Disenchanted! as a comedic trifle. This musical packs a feminist punch.

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click to enlarge FAIREST OF THEM ALL: Michelle Knight at Snow White. - Rob/Harris Productions
Rob/Harris Productions
FAIREST OF THEM ALL: Michelle Knight at Snow White.

It’s not often that political theater gets a hearing in the Bay area, but the Straz Center’s Disenchanted! is in some ways a work of real agitprop. Its subject is women’s rights, and though it pretends to be mostly concerned about fairy tales à la Disney, its real target is any cultural product that fosters a narrow view of female potential. The show is always amusing and on a few occasions extremely funny.

Think your value depends on your attachment to a Prince Charming? Think your waistline has to have the same dimensions as your neck, or that men can be Beasts but women have to be Beauties? Well, Disenchanted! wants women to know that they don’t have to starve themselves, that there are measures of female success that have nothing to do with looking gorgeous, and that a Little Mermaid is sometimes happier hanging out with friendly horseshoe crabs than with a crass and brutish Prince Eric.

If Walt Disney attracts this musical’s special antipathy, it’s because he gets to children early with patriarchal views of women’s usefulness, especially with the presumption that only a married woman can be happy. But what’s true about Disney is true also for the entertainment industry generally, not to mention magazine publishers, romance novelists and the makers of Barbie dolls. Female success, these tell us repeatedly, is all about love and looks. Disenchanted! means to reply that this ruinous lie is no longer pardonable.

Setting the record straight in Disenchanted! (book, music, and lyrics by Dennis T. Glacino) is a group of Disney females who have assembled to inform us that “happily ever after can be a royal pain in the ass.” There’s Snow White, sharply played by Michelle Knight, who is more or less the ringleader, and who makes it abundantly clear that she’s a smart, assertive woman who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. We’ve all fallen prey to the “Princess Complex,” she tells us, and it’s an ailment that has to be cured, for her and every woman’s benefit. What can happen to a female who doesn’t get healed is demonstrated by Belle (from Beauty and the Beast), who first appears to us in a straitjacket and sings the song “Insane!” about the dangers of Disney destiny. Kali Rabaut plays her as desperate, miserable, irritated — not the contented heroine at the end of the movie, but a victim shorn of all illusions.

Something else these women are no longer buying is the idea that they have to be wafer-thin to enjoy the good life. One of the funniest of ensemble songs is “All I Wanna Do Is Eat,” in which Cinderella, Snow White, Mulan and the Little Mermaid dream of finally giving way to “Cheetos, Doritos, burritos.” 

click to enlarge THE PRINCESS POSSE: From left, Kali Rabaut at The Little Mermaid, Breanne Pickering as Cinderella, Michelle Knight as Snow White, Becca McCoy as Sleeping Beauty, Lulu Picart as Hua Mulan and Ericka Dunlap as The One Who Kissed The Frog.  - Rob/Harris Productions
Rob/Harris Productions
THE PRINCESS POSSE: From left, Kali Rabaut at The Little Mermaid, Breanne Pickering as Cinderella, Michelle Knight as Snow White, Becca McCoy as Sleeping Beauty, Lulu Picart as Hua Mulan and Ericka Dunlap as The One Who Kissed The Frog.
On a related subject, husky Sleeping Beauty, played brashly by the talented Becca McCoy, dares to tell us that she can look in the mirror and find that “I’m Perfect.” Not so sure of her perfection is The Little Mermaid — also played by Rabaut — who can’t believe she swapped her natural element “the seven seas” for anything as unrewarding as a prince and a pair of legs. And to keep straitlaced Disney spinning in his grave, Mulan — played with comic flair by Lulu Picart — informs us that not only is she “no-one’s geisha,” she’s also a lesbian who watches ESPN.

There are other protestors against the Disney Mystique, including Pocahontas (Picart), Rapunzel (Rabaut) and a surprise African-American character known only as “The One Who Kissed The Frog” (Coya Bailey Jones).

And there’s also a very funny digression in the song “Big Tits,” in which four of our heroines chime in on the curious male habit of judging a woman not on her personality or intellect but on the size of her breasts. But this is off subject: the musical, tautly directed by Fiely Matias, is mostly about not living up to a fairy-tale standard of superficial excellence. Vanessa Lueck’s costuming is all too appropriate for cartoon characters, and the three-man band, led by Michael Raabe, couldn’t be better. There are a little more than a dozen songs, and the show’s performers handle them with great professionalism.

Not all of Disenchanted!’s tactics are successful — a strangely bimboish Cinderella reaches out, in the early minutes, for laughs she doesn’t deserve — but unless your Bible is the latest issue of Vogue, you’ll probably find this musical a welcome critique of a longstanding and harmful concept of womanhood.

Maybe there’s more than one way of living happily ever after. And maybe this act of theater, subversive as it is, can point in that direction.

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