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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Honk! by the Diablo Light Opera Company


The Diablo Light Opera Company is currently presenting the children's musical Honk! at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. The George Stiles/Anthony Drewe musical won the prestigious Olivier Award in 2000, as the Best New Musical in the UK. Honk! is based on the well known Hans Christian Andersen story of the ugly ducking. It has been put into song for Danny Kaye in the Samuel Goldwyn film Hans Christian Andersen and by John Glover for ACT's production with that same title two years ago. The team of Henry Krieger and Bill Russell wrote a wonderful adult and swinging version of the tale that was a big hit at TheatreWorks several years ago, and is still being played around the country. Now, the British team of Stiles and Drewe have written a tamer version of the classic tale. The musical is well constructed and the songs are cheery and chirpy. The lyrics are full of quick witted puns and some very nice phrasing. Each song has a simplistic charm that can delight an audience.

The musical had its start in England in 1993 when it played the Watermill Theatre in Newbury under the cumbersome title of The Ugly Duckling or The Aesthetically Challenged Farmyard Fowl. That title changed when it was revised in 1997, and played in Scarborough and Clapham, England. It moved to the famed Royal National Theatre in London where it played from December 11, 1999, to March 25, 2000. Honk! made its American debut at the North Shore Music Theater in Beverly, Mass. Since then the musical has been playing the length and breath of this country mostly by amateur groups. It has become a favorite, both for children and their parents.

The plot of the show is basically the same as the famous story. A young duckling named Ugly suffers taunts and teasing from his family and neighbors because of his ungainly appearance and awkwardness. The poor little duck becomes separated from the farm and he must find his way home pursued by a villain in the guise of a hungry cat. Along the way he has a series of adventures presented in separate scenes.

I have seen a professional version of this delightful pastiche and it would be unfair to compare this amateur presentation, since this lacks the charm of the musical. The director seems to be trying to make it serious whereas it should be more frivolous. Many of the scenes are flat and the timing is completely off in some of the numbers. The orchestra was off key in many of the songs. Some of the singers appear to be singing different songs than what the orchestra is playing. There are also some miscast performances in this production.

Jason Jeffrey plays Ugly. The lovely song, "Now I've Seen You" in the second act is completely off the mark, and he misses many notes in the second part of the song. However, in the last scene, when the duck becomes a swan, I could envision Jeffrey excelling in a rock opera. He comes back dressed in an all white Elvis outfit and suddenly shines. Robin Taylor plays an overly gay, villainous cat as if he were Paul Lynde with a little of Groucho Marx thrown in for good measure. His voice in the lower registers is good, but he can not hit the high notes. Some of the clever lines get lost. Michele Knapp, as the sympathetic mother, gives a good professional performance. She is excellent acting the role and most of her singing is fine.

Most of the better scenes are in the second act. The scene between two house cats and the villain is hilarious. T.J. Burnie, the sexy cat, and Lisa Saaz as the dumpy cat along with Robin give a wonderfully silly performance. Another marvelous scene is with Louis Graham, a good professional actor, costumed in green with flippers and goggles, playing a ham vaudevillian frog. His rendition of "Warts and All" is a highlight of the show. The whole scene comes together with the chorus singing and dancing and is the most professional scene of the musical, beautifully designed and executed. The last big scene, "The Blizzard," with everyone in white and "snow" descending is lovely, an accomplishment for the director, Sue Ellen Nelsen. The audience consists mostly children and their parents, and they appear to be having a good time. I guess that's what counts.

Honk plays through May 25, at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. For tickets call (925)943-SHOW.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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