Set in a fictionalized American magical kingdom, The Happiest Place on Earth, now playing at Hub Theatre, is a wonderfully bittersweet family saga that actor Tia Shearer crushes in her solo performance.
Written by Philip Dawkins, The Happiest Place on Earth bounds well beyond the playwright’s account of his own family’s resilience over three generations of love and loss. Playwright Dawkins also found a way to very quietly and subtly place nuggets of truth and wisdom on wider themes that resonated with me.
After all, I never expected to see the Declaration of Independence, with Thomas Jefferson’s 1776 commentary about the “pursuit of happiness,” juxtaposed with Walt Disney’s words from 1955, upon the creation of his very own 160-acre magical kingdom – a place meant to keep the real world at bay while white, middle class patrons experienced a certain time-limited happiness.s
Under Director Matt Bassett’s tender touch and generous spirit, this Hub production blossoms. Dawkins’ The Happiest Place on Earth is full of delicious humor and affecting, deeply emotional moments surrounding how a family pulls together to deal with shattering event. But, it is the casting and performance of Tia Shearer that bring the life-force and soul of the playwright’s words to life.
The Happiest Place on Earth is mostly set in a fictional Anaheim, California, where a magical kingdom has been built. A few years after the magical kingdom’s 1955 opening, the father of one particular New Mexico family suddenly dies. He dies young, and unexpectedly, right on live television as he delivers the Albuquerque sports scores. The year he passes away is 1963; a year of tragedy not only for this one family, but for America as a whole. With the family reeling, they take off for the magical kingdom to forget their troubles. Or at least try to. The family includes a now-widowed mom, her daughters, and several other close family relatives.
Can the magical kingdom be a place of newfound happiness? Can it be a place of solace and recovery?
Shearer portrays about 8 characters including moms, daughters, aunts, uncles and Playwright Dawkins himself, as the narrator for the evening. Shearer gives them each their own styles, voice patterns, and quirks. The pace of change can be dizzying at times, but that is fine for events get sorted out. Shearer easily moves between moments of being youthful and spunky, adorable, or full of a child’s pixie mannerisms. She is totally believable and enchanting.
Then there are moments depicting Playwright Dawkins or his mother, Beth, at different ages; Shearer turns scenes of dealing with loss and pain into a beauty of enlightenment and understanding. Shearer gives characters and scenes great heart. No character is mocked or made to appear stupid. Each is just human, with human frailties I understood.
Shearer is clearly a natural with comedy or portraying a lost innocence and utter joy. But there is one particularly poignant scene, where little daughter Beth deals with pangs of loss, that held me close. I will not give it away, but it involved Beth as a little girl seeing herself as Cinderella talking to an older, taller Cinderella at the magical kingdom that brought me to near tears.
The Hub’s technical design team for The Happiest Place on Earth includes Deb Kim Sivigny (set and costumes), John D. Alexander (lighting), Reid May (sound), Deb Criere and Kay Rsaza (props) and Patrick Lord’s very key projections. Together, they produce a sense of remembered, sepia nostalgia which then pops into reality. The set itself was basically a two-drawer metal filing cabinet full of props with several “play” areas and several large rear screens for the projection of images of the 1950’s – 1960’s era and of family album photos. (There were several scenes at the performance I attended where the projections were muddy since they weren’t projected on a white surface like at the cinema).
Let me add this side note for those of certain age. Memories of your own youth before a small black-and-white television set may flood you as words such as “Spin and Marty,” Davy Crockett, Fantasyland, Tomorrow Land, Frontier Land and Adventure Land whoosh into your being. When you gaze at the projected depiction of Sleeping Beauty’s castle as a certain show’s theme music plays, it may cause you to involuntarily smile.
Escaping into the magical place that is the Hub’s The Happiest Place on Earth was a delightful evening for me. The Happiest Place on Earth – starring Tia Shearer – is singular, fanciful, and acted with heart, intelligence, and imagination. There is wit, laughs and tears, and laughs again. Shearer actively guided me into a family‘s journey, seeking out happiness at a place built for easy happiness.
Then come doses of reality, if we are wise to the way life really happens. But when Tia Shearer took my hand at the top of the show, I felt safe and comfy like the little kid I once was in a time when I believed that there is always hope to be found and someone to protect me. As the production concluded she was still making me feel safe, plenty wiser to life’s unexpected bumps.
The Happiest Place on Earth is a little lovely gem discovered by the Hub’s Artistic Director, Helen Murray, that she has kindly placed before us. Really, it truly is.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission