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Lucky Duck

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lucky Duck Cast
Photo by J. Robert Schraeder/Coterie Theatre.

If TV shows like American Idol ruffle your feathers and most children's stage shows bore you and your family to tears, that's understandable. But don't let your previous experiences with either sour you on Coterie Theatre's production of Lucky Duck, the delightful musical by Jeffrey Hatcher, Bill Russell, and Henry Krieger that's playing at the New Victory Theatre through next weekend. Not only does this terrific little adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Ugly Duckling" belong in the upper echelon of recent kids' shows, it's one grown-ups don't have to be afraid of either.

In fact, when this version of the show debuted in 2004, its creators admitted it was "aimed at adult audiences." And, certainly, the younger set may not appreciate every single one of the (loving) tweaks to be found during the course of this 80-minute romp. Perhaps to help with that, the director of this Kansas City┬ľbased company's production, Jeff Church, has played up the pre-show to heighten the party-like atmosphere: Members of the audience are encouraged to talk to the cast and do the Funky Chicken before the entertainment, presented as a live variety show at the KLUC network, gets underway.

The first part of the story that follows, at least, requires little introduction, as it's more or less the tale you already know. Serena (Jennie Greenberry) is the title character, a fowl in a foul mood because she's not pretty enough to catch the eye of the shallow prince Drake (Seth Golay) who's hosting a kingdom-wide talent contest far away at the Quackerdome. After he rejects her at the audition, she sets off to the contest alone, on the way meeting and helping the apparently kindly Wolf (Tim Scott), who in turn becomes her inspiration and her agent. Wolf leads her to Goosetella at the Chick modeling agency (located—where else?—in New Duck City), where her inner swan and beauty are unleashed. After that, things get a bit more complicated.

Not in a bad way, fortunately. Russell and Hatcher's book is loaded with both plot and twists that keep the various allegiances up in the air and unpredictable, without ever drifting into either babying or condescension. Krieger and Russell's songs may not quite reach the heights of those they wrote for the 1997 musical Side Show (or that Krieger composed for the better-known Dreamgirls), but they're excellent across a vast swath of styles and tones covering everything from Hee-Haw country to Motown to high-fashion runway rhumba to Broadway-belting brass. (The always-on-target orchestrations are by Harold Wheeler.)

Designers Ryan J. Zirngibl (sets), Georgianna Buchanan (costumes), and Jarrett Bertoncin (lights) have given the production a rambunctious look that's a buoyant cross between a comic book and The Muppet Show. (My personal favorites were the hens who resembled waddling French dusters.) Ernie Nolan's choreography attempts to fit in with these elements, but has a feel that more recalls a wind-up toy than effortless effervescence. The performers, however, are all human and all winners, with the free-spirited and fiery-voiced Karel (who's more than good enough to soar through Idol herself) and the ever-surprising Scott, who wields a vulpine slaver as convincingly as he does a sheep's bashfulness, leading the pack.

Kids won't be scared of him, by the way, but they might be confused by exactly why parents are chortling at him having to wear a mask at one point. (Spoiler: It looks like Hannibal Lecter's.) Then again, this will be a non-issue issue throughout: Given that it name-checks mature topics as diverse as epidurals and "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" alongside nods to youthful reference points like Chicken Little and Wicked, and skips between playroom rave-ups and gut-grounded R&B without missing a beat, you might not always be sure who Lucky Duck's intended audience is. But no matter. It spends its time so focused on fun that no one in your party—of any age—is likely to be able to stop grinning long enough to care.

Lucky Duck
Through March 25
New Victory Theatre, 209 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: