There are two fundamental rules that must remain inviolate for my 4-year-old, Max, to enjoy children's theater. First, never allow larger-than-life animal characters to frolic in any interactive fashion with the audience: Breaking the fourth wall scares the hell out of him. And second, make certain that the running time for the performance does not exceed the length of his ability to remain seated. Call this the schpillkas factor, a Yiddish word meaning, "Is it over yet, Daddy?"
The Dallas Children's Theater was kind enough not to break his first rule. But DCT flouted the second in its current production of HONK! when it insisted he remain keister-bound for an hour and 45 minutes, which in pre-school years is like forever. Makers of kid movies must know this intuitively: Rugrats in Paris runs 78 minutes; The Emperor's New Groove ends in 78, even the original Toy Story has Woody and Buzz returning to Andy's arms after a mere 81-minute adventure. And film has some powerful tools to hold our focus: close-ups that build instant intimacy between character and audience, camera angles that tell us what's important and what's not, editing that can move us quickly between places and points of view and, of course, popcorn.
Theater is just harder work for the audience, especially an audience of kids, and there's just no way to gobble down Junior Mints without really pissing off the house manager. But when it works, it doesn't just hold our attention, it captures our imagination. When a live actor connects with an audience, it can be as powerful as it is magical. Through a character's choices, an inner life is revealed to us--even though it may be the inner life of a duck, as it is in HONK!
That said, HONK! is anything but tedious. Based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale The Ugly Duckling, which is tedious, this award-winning British musical by composer George Styles and lyricist/book writer Anthony Drew pushes the original plot in all directions. It turns a wild goose chase into a journey of self-discovery as it examines such weighty issues as individuality, prejudice and diversity---but in a fun way. Although the musical was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Award (the British equivalent to Broadway's Tony Award) for Best Musical in 2000, the runaway favorite to win was The Lion King, a lush theatrical extravaganza playing to sold-out audiences in London's West End. HONK!, with its minimalist sets, its impressionistic costumes and its Daffy Duck zaniness, was such a long shot that after it won even composer Styles sounded surprised, saying, "I guess the judges couldn't get tickets for The Lion King."
When the writing collaborators decided to take the show on the road, they eschewed Broadway overtures to lavish up the production values. Instead, they set a course on user-friendly venues around the globe that would maintain the stylistic simplicity that its originators had intended. Enter DCT, which has done just that. Director Nancy Schaeffer does offer more realism than earlier incarnations, but she maintains the play's light, accessible feel that calls to the imagination through its use of whimsically suggestive costumes and scenery. Rather than webbed feet, the freshly hatched ducklings sport black galoshes; rather than duck bills, they wear baseball caps in reverse. Schaeffer gets fine performances from a flock of talented actors (many of whom play multiple parts) who wear no masks but use their craft and some well-placed feathers to physically depict the fowl they represent.
At curtain's rise, we catch our first gander (I'll try to keep the poultry puns at a minimum, even though the play didn't) of the watery world of mallards Ida (Deborah Brown) and Drake (Brad M. Jackson). Ida is with egg--five of them, actually--one of which is decidedly larger than the rest. Suspicions about its origins fuel duck-yard gossip, particularly since Drake has the reputation of "ducking" his responsibilities. "I think I would have done better pairing with a decoy," laments Ida. The paternity issue is good for a few adult laughs, but it never seems to resolve itself, particularly since the matronly Ida has enough unconditional mother love for her entire brood. Four eggs finally hatch into cuddly ducklings and go off with Drake for some necessary swimming lessons. The larger egg needs more time to cook, but when it's done, out pops Todd Hart as Ugly, wearing shorts and knee-highs, geek glasses and a golf cap and playing the overgrown schoolyard nerd with conviction. No way, it would seem, that Hart could transcend his ugly duckliness and mimic the nobility of a swan. Of course, he has yet to molt.
Here is where the character-building rejection kicks in. Ugly experiences prejudice from just about everyone at or near the lake--siblings, dad, geese, a turkey. But nothing highlights that difference, particularly for the kids in the audience, more than Ugly's vain attempt to sound like his brother and sisters. Instead of the familiar quack, out comes an ear-splitting HONK, which only adds to their teases and taunts.
Our respite from pain first comes from Ida, as she sings a touching ballad, "This One Is Different," giving full voice to her considerable talent, and then in the form of comic relief from Cat (Karl Schaeffer), whose kindness toward Ugly is a ruse for his desire to eat well and often. Schaeffer is at his funny best, using a French accent to guarantee the cartoonish Cat will be a benign evil, more interested in a big finish for his song than in finishing his prey. Cat is too clever by half, but his campy scheming provides the plot device to separate Ida from Ugly, who in an attempt to go home again, gets lost and finds himself along the way.
It was during the perils of this journey that Max's schpillkas factor was running on overdrive. He squirmed in his seat as Ugly sought shelter in the house of Lowbutt (a domesticated hen played by Heather Willingham) and a highbrow cat (Arianna Movassagh). This plot digression, although entertaining and humorous for the adults, made Max unwilling to suspend his disbelief and more than willing to sit in my lap. Thank goodness for the bullfrog number a few scenes later, which pulled Max back into the action. Brad Jackson (who also played Drake) scored brilliantly with his Borscht Belt bullfrog reminiscent of Shecky Green (coughing: "Hey, I got a human in my throat."). He is joined by the rest of the cast in a rousing music-hall number that encourages Ugly to believe that "out there somewhere, someone's going to love you--warts and all."
Ugly has already met that someone--actually two someones--Momma Ida, who has made chase ever since she learned Ugly was lost, and Penny (Amy Askins), a female swan who makes a curiously similar-sounding honk. Of course, Cat is also in hot pursuit, but is unable to satisfy his culinary taste before Ugly gets morphed into a graceful albeit inedible swan.
Perhaps it's the challenge of kid theater to keep the parents entertained as well; and clever dialogue targeted just over the heads of most children generally kept the old folks engaged. Ultimately it's a question of pacing for director Schaeffer, who managed to narrowly escape sagging attention spans with some frozen theatrical spectacle, several heartrending ballads and plenty of show tunes.
Because there are only a few performances left, I would suggest parents run not waddle to get tickets. Of course, my son had the last word on this when he left the theater, yelling "HONK!"