Chicago Opera Theater presents THE PERFECT AMERICAN Review—A Meditation on Legacy

Philip Glass Opera Depicts Death of Walt Disney

A lot of people will read the above subhead and instantly decide whether or not they wish to attend this show, which is understandable. Philip Glass is a composer who evokes strong opinions, and his source material for this 2013 opera, Peter Stephan Jungk’s Der König von Amerika, is a less-than-positive biographical novel about another artist who evokes polarized opinions. But Glass himself has said he doesn’t see his opera as anti-Disney, and this Chicago premiere, a co-production with Long Beach Opera, is a major coup for Chicago Opera Theater.

Chicago Opera Theater presents THE PERFECT AMERICAN Review
Kyle Knapp (Doctor), Jamie Chamberlin (Hazel George), Justin Ryan (Walt Disney), Justin Boss (Doctor 5), Kira Dills-DeSurra (Nurse) Photo: Liz Lauren

Even Folklore, Apple Pie, and Popcorn Die Alone

The opera begins with Walt Disney (Justin Ryan) declaring that the worst part of his cancer treatment is waiting to discover his fate with no way of knowing whether the things he sees are real. Delirious and frightened, Disney flashes back to happier moments in his life, such as his childhood in Marceline, Missouri, as well as the many things which frightened him. Surrounding him are his family and friends, including his brother, Roy (Zeffin Quinn Hollis), his wife, Lillian (Suzan Hanson), and his nurse, Hazel George (Jamie Chamberlin), who assure him that he is “folklore, apple pie, and popcorn.” He’s built a mighty commercial empire

and brought joy to millions, if not billions, of children around the world while achieving a kind of immortality. But Disney doesn’t want metaphorical immortality, he wants to be frozen and resurrected in the future, like Jesus, despite his terror at how society is liberalizing.

A Complex, if Fictionalized, Character Study

Rudolph Wurlitzer’s libretto runs with the idea that Disney was extremely racist and the kind of person who would demand his nurse make eye contact with him during an entire incoherent monologue. But director Kevin Newbury (who has built a solid reputation for finding the emotional core of modern operas), heavily suggests that the Disney we are seeing is a diminished man far from his right mind. Though there are projections (video by Sean Cawelti), the set, by Zane Pihlstrom, is made up of objects historically accurate to a 1966 hospital. Disney’s ghosts wonder through this area, which he seems to confuse with his home, and the occasional nightmarish apparition is all the more frightening for being so incongruent. Act One ends with a dream sequence in which he is jumpscared by an animatronic Abraham Lincoln in retaliation for an anti-Civil Rights Movement rant. Elsewhere he is tormented by Wilhem Dantine (Scott Ramsay), one of the many animators whose work Disney took credit for and whom he fired for attempting to organize. But the fact these figures are present at all inside Disney’s own mind implies he is wracked with guilt, and Dantine’s judgment that Disney deserves pity seems sincere.

Chicago Opera Theater Assembles  Great Talents

This sympathetic interpretation owes a lot to Justin Ryan’s performance. Besides being a melodious bass with incredible stamina, he is also a magnetic actor. We see in him that Disney’s childlike persona is no corporate-produced mask, but his true self. His gamboling around brings levity to an otherwise very dark opera, and a nonverbal moment of interaction with a child establishes that Disney’s ego is exactly what made him such a great storyteller. Hollis, who also voices the Lincoln animatronic, plays Roy as a subservient enabler, one of the many people who is inordinately invested in making Disney and the company which is indistinguishable from him into a vision of perfection. He’s clearly protecting his own need for validation as much as Walt’s as he angrily fends off nay-sayers and anything else the brothers might find upsetting, such as a certain pop artist who makes an amusing cameo at the beginning of Act Two.

Glass’s score is also melodious. While it contains his usual repetitive minimalism, it is free of the grating or bizarre sounds which characterize some of his earlier work. Fans of his will recognize a few sections which recall Satyagraha, another piece about legacy, inspired by Gandhi and the Bhagavad Gita. But this time, the myth-making motif is invoked by characters intentionally in-universe. The Apollo Chorus does great work as Disney’s wistful but endlessly dedicated army of animators, relegated to the background but crucial to supporting the fluid, meditative score. A great deal of credit must also go to conductor Andreas Mitisek, who will return for Chicago Opera Theater’s next production but is stepping down as Artistic Director after The Perfect American closes. The orchestra’s melancholy energy perfectly encapsulates a life that ended after enormous accomplishment but wasn’t sufficient for the one who lived it.

Chicago Opera Theater presents THE PERFECT AMERICAN Review
Abraham Lincoln Puppet, left: Kyle Knapp (Doctor), right: Kira Dills-DeSurra (Nurse) Photo: Liz Lauren

Highly Recommended

Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.


April 30 at 3:00 pm



The Harris Theater for Music and Dance
205 E Randolph St, Chicago


Online -
By phone-312-704-8414


Liz Lauren

About the Author: Jacob Davis

Jacob Davis is a freelance writer and dramaturge. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Theatre, where he specialized in the history of dramatic literature and interned as a dramaturge for Dance Heginbotham. His professional work includes developing new performance pieces such as The Blues Ain’t a Color. Since moving to Chicago in 2014 he has reviewed theatre, written articles, and conducted interviews for a number of websites.





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