Some family-friendly musicals — Cats, for instance, and The Lion King — are as dependent on sets and costumes for their success as on anything else. Honk!, a 1993 update and expansion of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story, The Ugly Duckling, has similar aspirations. So the show is fortunate, indeed, in the production put together by the Haywood Area Regional Theatre (HART), now at The Performing Arts Center at the Shelton House, in Waynesville. This is the first such fare offered by HART in its twenty-five year history, and the company has done a good job.
Scenic artist Lyle Baskin has provided a light, bright attractive setting that serves for barnyard, nest, lake and additional locations (including a cat-centric eatery), making clever use of cloth and projections to simulate, among other things, a snowstorm. Oversize props (uncredited), such as a giant baguette and a laughably large remote control, add to the fun. Director Mark Jones has chosen, for amusement’s sake, to set the show in the late 1960s/early 1970s, which is primarily reflected in the vibrant, color-coordinated costumes created by a team of nine.
The huge cast (26 by program count, including 11 children) does an admirable job, even though this is the first appearance at HART for most of them. Among the better performances, James Meador in the lead role of Ugly — who should be a duck, is thought to be a turkey, and turns out to be a swan — has a commanding presence. Charles Mills, as Ugly’s putative father, Drake, is wryly amusing. Tabitha Judy, as Ugly’s mother Ida, has a sweet voice and projects great warmth. Strother Stingley, as the villainous Cat constantly tricking and trying to eat Ugly, brings palpable pleasure to his role. Frances Davis, as another cat, Queenie, Christy Bishop, as the chicken Lowbutt, and Chris Martin, as the goose Greylag, all give noteworthy comic turns. Brian Smith, as the green-bewigged, peace symbol-wearing Bullfrog, makes the most of his big number, “Warts and All,” which is the one production number to avail itself of the children’s energy. Finally, Lora Kole, in several roles — most notably, Dot the goose and Penny the swan — is sharp, funny, even moving, and without trying nearly steals each of her scenes.
On the whole, the cast seems focused yet at ease, and the lines are better pointed than in most community theater presentations — which speaks volumes about the good, hard work done by the director. The necessarily simple choreography, by Cord Scott, is lively and enjoyable. Though there’s an occasional sour note, the songs are mostly well sung, and a couple of choral numbers are really quite beautiful (and the live pit band, under the musical direction of Kristin Dominguez, is first-rate). The children aren’t particularly distinguished, but neither are the roles they’re asked to play. Yes, it’s true, there are moments when performers stare about pointlessly, waiting for their musical cues, and a couple of the youngsters, called on once for scenic duty, look out into the audience, seeming bored if not disgusted with the task at hand. But these minor blemishes are typical in the community theater movement, and minimal here.
If only the material lived up to the care, affection, and energy put into it! The book, music, and lyrics, by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, are tepid at best. Though American place names have been substituted, this is a very British show, with mostly undistinguished songs and jokes of the music hall variety. (Typical pun: Drake, wanting his ducklings to use less water, complains, “My bill’s big enough.”) The attenuated plot sends Ugly on a series of minimal adventures, all keyed to his desire to get home to his mother, but these are just set pieces, so the show never develops any momentum. The characters are so broadly drawn, they have no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever.
Thematically, too, Honk! disappoints. We’re repeatedly told that Ugly’s just different, and difference should be celebrated. But how, really, is Ugly different, apart from looking different? As in the original, what really matters is that Ugly turns out to be beautiful, and that’s a troubling message.
Also troubling is the creators’ seeming inability to decide on the audience they wish to address. Though the barnyard setting and characters make it difficult to believe adults will really be engaged, most of the jokes, including a few double entendres, aren’t aimed at children. Indeed, one entire scene of seduction between cats, though lightly handled, seems particularly inappropriate for the younger set. That there’s an alternate version, called Honk Jr., speaks volumes.
And the show is long — at almost two and a half hours, about an hour too long. Though the children in attendance at the Sunday matinee paid attention, and the show received the now-obligatory standing ovation, it’s hard to believe everyone was having that good a time.
Honk! is no Mary Poppins or The Wizard of Oz. It’s wonderful that HART wants to expand its audience, so here’s hoping that, next time out, the company lavishes its attention on a more worthy object.
Honk! Music by George Stiles. Book and Lyrics by Anthony Drewe. Directed by Mark Jones. Music Direction by Kristin Dominguez. Choreography by Cord Scott. Scenic Artist, Lyla Baskin. With (in order of appearance): Charles Mills, Bryan Nicholls, Brian Smith, Chris Martin, Jennifer Hippensteel, Mary Ann Lalemand, Adrienne Mollette, Lora Kole, Tabitha Judy, Strother Stingley, Allison Stinson, Jacob Hunt, Madison Garris, Emma Martin, Mary Ashley McCrory, Lydia Lalemand, Benjamin Martin, Alexia Grant, Carson Matthews, Brynna Sinyard, Andreas Kampouris, Amy Hunt, James Meador, Sean Bruce, Frances Davis, and Christy Bishop.
Play runs through May 10. Thursday through Sunday. May 7, 8 and 9 at 7:30 p.m. May 10 at 3 p.m. $22 adults, $20 seniors, $10 students. $5 student tickets available for the Thursday and Sunday performances. Tickets at 828-456-6322.