Mary Moody Northen Theatre's production of 'Honk!' reimagines the ugly duckling in a musical that's long and uneven but offers some excellent acting and moments of unquestionable magic
Reviewed by Barry Pineo, Fri., April 29, 2005
Mary Moody Northen Theatre, through May 1
Running time: 2 hrs, 20 min
The folks at St. Edward's University's Mary Moody Northen Theatre are billing their production of Honk! as "a musical comedy for the whole family!" It's an apt description. Young and old know this story about the ugly duckling, shunned by the animals in the barnyard because he hatched from a bigger egg and is so different, large, and ungainly. Eventually, of course, he discovers that he's not really a duck, he's a well, I certainly don't want to give anything away. Anthony Drewe, who wrote the book and lyrics, cleaves closely to Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, with some twists: This duckling, instead of running away, gets lost, and his mother searches for him for months, and there's a malevolent cat that keeps popping up out of nowhere. For the adults, there are references to cell phones and reality television shows. Songs are plentiful and, for the most part, peppy and uplifting, with music by George Stiles.
Director Rod Caspers and his designers have constructed a production that depends heavily, and effectively, on the audience's imagination. While the show doesn't necessarily breathe barnyard, it does breathe barn, with slatted wood, packing crates, and trunks abundant throughout the setting. The colors are earthy all browns, yellows, and reds and there's little that's representational. Clouds are made with draped fabric hung around the periphery of the stage; water is evoked by an actor delicately waving a large piece of filmy blue cloth about and letting it settle onto the floor; eggs are umbrellas of different sizes (and from which poke the arms of the ducklings as they hatch). The set is often bathed in warm light. It's magical in a very theatrical way.
Caspers gets some excellent work from his actors, all the more impressive because so many of the ones playing prominent roles are freshmen. Always engaging is Libby Dees as Ida, the ugly duckling's mother, who has a beautifully expressive and melodic voice; her songs are always effectively rendered and easy on the ear. In multiple roles, Walter Songer is delightful, particularly as an optimistic, pun-filled bullfrog.
The show is a bit long. Andersen's fairy tale isn't very complicated, and Drewe and Stiles seem intent on making a mountain out of a molehill. Some judicious cutting might have been in order, especially in a show that appeals so heavily to the young. Judy Thompson-Price's choreography is energetic and appropriate, and given their youth, the actors execute it well. However, some of the staging didn't make a lot of sense. Caspers and costume designer Hope Irish Buchanan have chosen to dress the actors as people rather than animals, and Caspers has the actors represent their animal selves through their physicality. But this animal physicality seems to come and go without any obvious rhyme or reason; sometimes the actors look like animals, more often they look like people. Such unevenness might leaven the appeal for adults, but there's unquestionable magic in the show for children, and not just in the lavish design and complicated execution, but in the lesson of acceptance and tolerance that is at the heart of this old tale.