Disney vs. Dreamworks: Round 2, Live on Stage

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Summer is now over and the new theater season is about to begin. Here in Los Angeles, the season sort of un-officially opens tonight with the opening performance of the Getty's annual production of a Greek play under the stars in Malibu.

But with this odd week in between Labor Day and the start of the fall theater rush, I want to talk about Disney…and Dreamworks. And yes, we're still talking about theater here — not a special Thursday edition of Hollywood Banter. First, Disney. This summer marks 15 years since Disney got into the live theater business. In 1994, Disney dipped into the then-very un-family friendly cesspool of Times Square and Broadway with a screen-to-stage adaptation of their 1991 animated (and Oscar-nominated) musical, Beauty and the Beast. Needless to day, 15 years later both Times Square and Broadway have been changed, in no small part by Disney Theatricals.

But just last week, Disney's latest Broadway blockbuster, The Little Mermaid, closed after a lackluster run. Now, don't worry, Disney's probably still doing fine. The Lion King is still running on Broadway, in London, in Vegas — and back in Southern California next month, with a run in San Diego. Then the following month, their previous hit, Mary Poppins, makes its L.A. debut at the Ahmanson.

But the question for Disney Theatricals is, what's next? Well, besides a rumoured prequel to Peter Pan (which had a workshop run in La Jolla earlier this year) no one knows? But naturally, just as Disney has struggled this year with The Little Mermaid, guess who decided to get into the Broadway musical business?

shrek.jpgThat's right…Dreamworks, who made their Broadway debut earlier this year with Shrek: The Musical. Now, the show doesn't feature "Allstar" by Smashmouth, the songs are all original — written by Jeanine Tesori, who penned the music for Caroline and Change and some of the tunes for Thoroughly Modern Millie. Adapting the movie is Pulitzer Prize-winner, David Lindsay Abaire, and directing the show is Jason Moore, who wrangled the puppet and human action in Avenue Q. You'd be hard pressed to find a more talented creative team, and yet Shrek was pretty much snubbed at the Tony awards this year. Shrek was nominated in a bunch of categories, but only won an award for Best Costume Design. Interestingly, Beauty and the Beast received a slew of nominations back in 1994 — and guess what was the only award it won? Yup, Best Costume Design. So despite not being unanimously adored by Broadway, Shrek by Disney's standards, is doing pretty well.

The really good news, since Shrek will soon be loping its way to LA courtesy of a nation tour, is the show is actually quite good. The songs are well-written and smoothly integrated into the plot. Shrek pulls off the difficult task of finding the sweet spot between kid-friendly romp and coherent entertainment. The only problems are 1.) there's no really scene-stealing number and 2.) it feels like it was the product of three smart people in a room trying really hard, rather than a single, passionate voice.

Last summer Shrek performed its out-of-town tryout in Seattle, the same city where this summer, a second musical adaptation of a blockbuster Dreamworks film landed on stage. Catch Me If You Can, the Steven Spielberg caper about a counterfeiting fabulist, has been minted into a musical — courtesy of Marc Shaiman and the team that styled Jon Waters's Hairspray into a musical back in 2002.

Like Shrek, Catch Me If You Can lacks a certain spark — it feels like still on the runway. You know everything is in place and tested, it's just waiting for a chance to take off. Perhaps by the time it arrives on Broadway it will be ready. Norbert Leo Butz is excellent in the Tom Hanks role — so much so that soon critics will probably stop mention Hank in reviews. It still needs some tweaking, but Catch Me If You Can is solid, entertaining, mainstream fare. I'd say Dreamworks is off to a pretty good start in trying catch Disney at their own theatrical game.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.