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In "Disney's Descendants: The Musical," youth choose their own path

"Disney's Descendants: The Musical," based on the 2015 film of the same name, dramatizes the potential of young people to change the world.

In fifteenth century France, a seventeen-year-old girl was sent by the king to a battle—the outcome of which was very much in doubt. She arrived wearing armor and raising her banner high. The king's faith was justified. Rallied by the sight of her, his army won the battle. Not bad for an illiterate girl born in an obscure town. But, two years later, she was burned at the stake and her remains were thrown into the river Seine.

Nobody is burned in "Disney's Descendants: The Musical," which isn't to say that the stakes aren't high. The musical, adapted more or less faithfully from a 2015 TV movie, has a hopeful and urgent message: we can choose differently than the people who came before us. 

It begins with Ben (Peter Bryant), a prince approaching the date of his coronation. He shocks his parents (King Beast and Queen Belle from "Beauty and the Beast," played by Tanner Kosten and Aubrey Clark, respectively) by announcing that he intends to invite four children from the Isle of the Lost, an island on which villains from Disney films have been imprisoned, to their high school. These children are not their parents, he insists. They can make their own choices and so can he.

Why should the sons and daughters of these villains even want to leave the island? Maleficent (Mary Kate Murnen) has a reason: so they can steal the magic wand of the Fairy Godmother (Rebekah Karel). They go, finding themselves in a brand-new environment: one in which they're expected to behave themselves. Complications occur, of course. Maybe not all the good kids are as good as they appear and maybe consciences glow even where you wouldn't expect them.

At 90 minutes and with no intermission, this is a fast-paced show. It is kept in motion by quick scene changes and periodic bursts of music, much of it dance-oriented. It's dramatic, funny and lightly suspenseful. The attention of my kids (Gemma, nearly 11, and Heidi, newly 8), never waned, and neither did mine. 

The cast is not a small one. Each person was well-rehearsed and there was never the suggestion of a slip or a stumble. Still, some performances stood out. Murnen makes for a deliciously wicked Maleficent, half vamp and half demon. Mikki Robinson as Mal, Maleficent's daughter, brings a winning sincerity. She's believable in every scene, whether confiding to a friend or trying to summon the courage to push back against her mother. Taylor Moss, who plays Audrey, is wholly convincing as the seemingly perfect girl whose façade conceals insecurity and a cruel streak.

I'm not sure the show includes any songs destined for immortality. That isn't to say that the musical numbers are filler because they're not, although the singing is not always up to the level of the dancing. What lingers more than the melodies is the reminder that young people, having newly arrived in the world, can sometimes see it more clearly than the adults running it. That's a beautiful thing, Joan of Arc's executioners notwithstanding. Our children should be better than we were.

"Disney's Descendants: The Musical" is onstage at the Grand Rapids Civic Theatre through Sunday, March 17.


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