The advertising for Honk! trumpets that the show won London's Olivier award for Best Musical over such competition as The Lion King. From this, one might infer that Honk!, like Lion King, is a musical that would appeal to adults even without children in tow. That would be a mistake. Honk! is children's theatre in all its brightly-colored, overly-emoted, cheesy-punned glory.
Honk! tells the story of the Ugly Duckling, and begins just before our hero hatches. Ugly, as he's called, is born shortly after his siblings, four perfect little ducklings, played by four children wearing adorable yellow shirts, overalls, and caps (with yellow bills, get it?) and boots to simulate their adorable little webbed feet. They quack and cheep and follow their father off to their first swimming lesson. Some minutes later, the one remaining egg quivers and cracks, and our protagonist emerges, played by a fully-grown black man dressed in grey slacks, jacket and vest. His mother, Ida (in a matronly yellow housedress and pearls) is somewhat taken aback by his unusual appearance, but her reservations melt away after one unconditionally loving hug from her new son.
The rest of the duck population, including Ugly's brother and sisters, are not as welcoming. They mock Ugly because he is different, and Ugly soon finds himself marginalized from duck society. Besides Ida, who is momentarily distracted by the rest of her brood, the only animal who is interested in Ugly is the Cat, who doesn't see anything unusual in Ugly other than an opportunity for a supersized Duck a L'Orange. Ugly barely escapes the Cat's invitation to have him for lunch, but is unable to find his way home. The show then follows Ugly as he meets different animals on his quest to find his mother, all the while staying one step ahead of the hungry feline. In the meantime, Ida becomes more desperate to find her son, and, despite rumors that he had been taken by the Cat, she heads off alone to search for him. On the way to the predestined happy ending, the show gently touches on themes of acceptance, inner beauty, and the power of a mother's love.
The second act showstopper is given to Bullfrog, who tells Ugly that someday someone is going to love him "Warts and All." LaQuin Groves gives a great avuncular performance, taking Ugly under his flipper and cheerfully dispensing amphibian wisdom. The song is a winner even before Groves is joined by the "froglets," two dozen kids decked out in green outfits and sunglasses, singing and dancing with the pure joy of being loved for who you are.
The rest of the score is not quite as successful, although there is really only one number that lays an egg. The first act closes after Ugly meets some geese who agree to take to the skies to find Ida. The geese are led by Greylag, a satirical version of a pompous RAF pilot. (The score demands that he be British; the lyrics don't work unless he searches for Ugly's "Mum.") Greylag leads his geese on a "Wild Goose Chase," a production number that never really gets off the ground. Although Greylag and his wife, Dot, have a regiment of seven or eight geese to back them up, only Greylag and Dot actually sing the bulk of the song, with the backup geese simply huddling behind them in a circle. The show needs big choreography here, but the geese aren't given much to do other than bounce up and down.
The score isn't all upbeat. Ugly sings a poignant number about the pain of being "Different," and much of Ida's music is touching, as she continues searching for her son when everyone believes he is dead. Barbara Hinrichsen, as Ida, fares better with this music than her more perky first act songs, allowing us to hear the despair of her imagined loss. Lance Roberts's Ugly seems better suited to the comedy of the show. He's precious when he earnestly attempts to quack, and instead lets out the "honk" of the show's title. When he sings, he uses a nasal, child-like voice. Sometimes Roberts slips, and lets out a more adult, warm, melodious voice, that makes one wish the Music Theatre of Southern California had approached this show in a way that would have allowed Roberts to let loose vocally.
But that would have required this production to be something that it isn't. And if you think that's a good idea, you haven't learned anything from Honk!
The Music Theatre of Southern California; M. Roger Lockie, Executive Producer; Bill Shaw, Artistic Director; presents Honk! a musical comedy in two acts based on "The Ugly Duckling" by Hans Christian Andersen. Music by George Stiles; Book and Lyrics by Anthony Drewe. Sets designed by J. Branson; Costumes designed by George T. Mitchess; Properties designed by Heather Garrett--provided by Music Theatre of Wichita; Additional Costumes provided by The Theatre Company, Designed by Pamela Gill. Lighting designed by Raun Yankovich; Sound designed by Adam Fillius; Wigs and hairstyles by Debbie Wilson; Production stage manager Rick Kleber; Technical director Richard Godinez; Assistant stage manager Kelly Flynn; Musical director/conductor Richard Allen; Choreographer and musical staging by Rikki Lugo; Directed by Bill Shaw. Honk! is presented through special arrangement with and all authorized performance materials are supplied by Music Theatre International.
Honk! plays at the San Gabriel Civil Auditorium in San Gabriel through October 21, 2001, and continues at the Alex Theater in Glendale October 26 - 28, 2001. Ticket prices are $22 - $42. Music Theatre of Southern California will contribute $5 of every ticket sold for the October 19th and 20th performances of Honk! to the American Red Cross, and children under 12 receive half off regular ticket prices. For tickets at the San Gabriel Civic, call (626) 308-2868; for tickets at the Alex, call (800) 233-3123. For more information, see http://www.musictheatre.org
Photo by Ed Krieger