Review: Journey to 'The Happiest Place on Earth'

I’m recovering from a very emotive production, streaming online from Chicago’s
Sideshow Theatre and recorded archivally Oct. 29, 2016. “The Happiest Place on Earth” is a 95-minute, rich, biographical journey of a family interwoven with the history of Disneyland.

Written and performed by Jeff Award-winning playwright Philip Dawkins, and directed by Sideshow Theatre’s Jonathan L. Green, it’s a conversational, heartwarming, pure tapestry that holds your attention from start to finish.

On a simple set designed by Mike Mroch consisting of a desk, chair, overhead projector (for displays of vintage snapshots and family photos) and a red Mickey Mouse balloon, solo performer Dawkins relays the intimate stories of his grandmother, Betty Lou, and her four daughters – each with a distinctive personality – covering a 50-year period.

Betty Lou met her future Albuquerque sportscaster husband Phil Akins at a college dance and lost him at the age of 35. Akins was signing off with his trademark, “Good Night, Good Sports,” when he suffered a cerebral aneurysm live on the air. Dawkins even has the original obituary; on the back is the news of an anti-segregation march, touching on Gov. George Wallace and Bobby and John F. Kennedy.

The connection with Disneyland that initiated his family’s half century of annual Christmas visits to the theme park? Betty Lou called fellow widower and sorority sister Betty Houston, who suggested a trip to the Magic Kingdom with her girls just might help with that first Christmas without their dad.

You’ll learn a lot about Disneyland history from its 1955 opening to the euphemisms used in the park (“protein spill” means vomit) to Walt’s favorite of his five lands (Fantasyland). The words “no” and “I don’t know” were never allowed, but “I’ll find out.” Happiness was a constant; a place where dreams do come true, where grownups could act like kids again. And Dawkins cleverly shows us how his family’s stories are the comforting stories of Disney characters and tales.

Dawkins is a natural and inspirational storyteller. If you had told me I’d sit and listen completely mesmerized to a tale of four sisters and Disneyland parallels, I would have scoffed in disbelief. But he’s a tall, lanky, dynamic actor who vividly expresses himself vocally and physically, especially when he becomes one of his aunts or his mother.

Dawkins is witty, articulate and a gifted talent throughout his cohesive, well-paced narrative. Named for his sportscaster grandfather, he’s 35, the same age when his grandfather died. There are many wonderful moments shared, the most tender moments are when he sings “Baby of Mine” from "Dumbo" or tells the story of his mother meeting Cinderella, another fatherless girl, and asks, “If I forget my dad, will he forget me?” But just as capable of bringing you to tears, he’s also capable of bringing you to great laughter; his description of his aunt Lynn, all sugar and spice who loved a good scandal even at the age of 9, is hysterical.

Dawkins’ thoughtful ending? It’s long-range and demonstrates great accuracy; he exits with a wave and his grandfather’s sign-off. A gentle reminder perhaps that nothing is promised and truly no one lives happily ever after.

• Regina Belt-Daniels continues to social distance as she awaits a return to acting, directing, teaching and traveling with her husband. Gratefully, she still can write theater reviews thanks to online productions, and she enthusiastically Zooms her way through theater board meetings throughout Illinois.


WHAT: Sideshow Theatre Company's “The Happiest Place on Earth”

WHEN: Streaming now

COST: Pay if you can to "watch from the comfort of your own quarantine”


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