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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The cast.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

If mixed messages were low prices, you could feed a family of four for a decade on Walmartopia. The Minetta Lane Theatre's newest tenant isn't just one of the unlikeliest Fringe Festival transfers ever, it's also a blinding tribute to exactly the kind of excess it decries. An example of what can happen when a little show that could gets a big infusion of cash, this mega-satirical musical now less resembles mega-retailer Wal-Mart than it does Bloomingdales on speed.

Scenic magician David Korins has provided endless vistas of stocked store shelves and insets of hotel rooms and offices that slide about as though they're weekend sale displays. Miranda Hoffman has outfitted the show's cast of 11 in a veritable fashion department of outfits ranging from those ubiquitous blue vests to sequined gowns and even pseudo-futuristic daywear. Leah Gelpe has crafted an elaborate series of 3D projections and film clips that keep the stage's vertical space churning with high-tech life throughout.

When I first encountered Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn's Wisconsin-born musical in last year's Fringe Festival, much of this filigree was absent. The show relied heavily on its performers to establish a Threepenny Opera-like atmosphere of capitalistic oppression and corporate surrealism, making the danger both more ephemeral and more real. Plus, its cast of unpolished unknowns brought such naked enthusiasm to their portrayals, you were rooting for them to succeed just as you were rooting for the central figures, mother and daughter Vicki and Maia Latrell to take down the viral department store giant.

Cheryl Freeman and Nikki M. James.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

But the Off-Broadway production is missing most of the charm and edge of the Fringe mounting. Directed with mechanical precision by Daniel Goldstein and starring established Broadway talents Cheryl Freeman and Nikki M. James as Vicki and Maia, Walmartopia is now super-slick and super-lifeless. This was never that serious of a show - after all, the disembodied head of company founder Sam Walton is a major character. But flooded with flash and more winking performances than you can shake an Equity card at, it's clear the show is now in on its joke, which makes the joke far more wearying than when everything was played for keeps.

The center of the story remains Vicki's quest for respect and remuneration commensurate with her five-year tenure at Wal-Mart, against sexist managers and indistinguishable executives who are all too happy with the status quo. Her protestations get her and Maia thrust into a time portal, and the two reappear in a Wal-Mart-controlled dystopia 30 years down the line, where they're facing an uphill battle but are willing to risk everything to make their complaint global and permanent.

To help clarify their struggle, the book and the score have been edited, streamlined, and jazzed up, though seldom noticeably or for the better. The bad guys have been given gleefully bulging doses of Brecht to make them less diabolical and less unpredictable, but considerably more entertaining; one of the new highlights is an exhilarating, and extraneous, vaudevillian duet (with spirited choreography by Wendy Seyb) called "The Future Is Ours" for company CEO Scott Smiley (John Jellison) and in-house mad scientist Doctor Normal (Stephen DeRosa). The bitterly ironic but beautiful pageant song "A Woman's Place" has been transformed into a broadly unsatisfying burlesque outing with its use of men in its ensemble.

When the performers themselves excite, it's usually only temporarily: Maia has been beefed up a bit since last year, but not enough to give the dynamic James a proper showcase for her prodigious vocal or dance talents; Brennen Leath sings a couple of impressive solos as drone-and-loving-it Darin, but is frequently lost smarming it up in the background; and Pearl Sun's blaring belt of a voice and keen comic talent are mostly wasted in her second-act turn as an authoritarian security guard. Freeman strolls through her role as if pondering choices in the breakfast cereal aisle, and usually seems more like a mannequin than a magnetic lead.

Of course, this show has always been less about its characters than about taking Wal-Mart to task for predatory pricing practices and worldwide expansion many claim are destroying small towns' unique characters and economies. You have to chisel through so much chintz to get to that core now, one can't help but wonder if the creators of Walmartopia learned too many wrong lessons while striving to teach us the right ones.

Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane off of 6th Avenue between Bleecker and West 3rd Street
Take the A,C,E,B,D,F or V to West 4th, exit at the southern end of the subway platform up the left hand side stairs which brings you up on the NE corner of West 3rd Street and Sixth Avenue. Cross over West 3rd and walk half a block south to Minetta Lane. Turn left and you'll see the theatre.
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster

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