By Bob Curtright
Music Theatre of Wichita missed a bet by not passing out bumper stickers saying “Honk if you had fun.” Everyone opening night likely would have grabbed them up.
“HONK!” is that rare joy in theater: A perfectly safe and kid-friendly show that’s also substantial enough to keep parents and other adults engrossed and thoroughly entertained rather than just patiently biding their time until they can go home.
This hip retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” is big, bold and circussy with saturated colors to dazzle and delight young eyes running rampant through J Branson’s versatile, layered, oval-proscenium set and George T. Mitchell’s quirky animal-inspired costumes.
But there’s a sly and complex wit – not to mention outrageous puns — throughout from writer/lyricist Anthony Drewe that gives it multiple layers of meaning for different ages. And composer George Stiles whips up surprisingly sophisticated music with subtle key changes and internal pacing reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim or Andrew Lloyd Webber. Well, Drewe and Stiles are British after all and can’t help themselves.
And “HONK!” was the surprise winner for best musical of 2000 in London over both juggernauts “The Lion King” and “Mamma Mia!”
Music Theatre had the honor of creating the Midwestern premiere in 2001 and recording the first full cast album (still available worldwide). Now with this encore, MTW and director Wayne Bryan have expanded the show with a larger, more diverse (in animal terms) cast into an even richer, more delightful experience.
Interestingly, its message about being bullied for being “different” but learning to love yourself for your uniqueness is even more timely than a decade ago because society has grown more aware of the consequences of bullying. Exploring this topic as an allegory with animals makes it easier to approach.
The cast is universally strong in voice and presence, particularly Lawrence Cummings as Ugly, the gawky, gangling but optimistically curious creature at the heart of the story, and Susan Hofflander as Ida, his loving and protective mom.
Broadway/movie veteran Cummings (Sebastian in last summer’s “The Little Memaid” here) has power to spare but also interprets his songs with quiet, compelling, intimate wonder – notably his musings on being “Different.” “Different isn’t spiteful or wrong, why can’t we all just get along? Different isn’t bad (or scary, or threatening), it’s just, well, different.” He also gives soaring romantic lilt to “Now I’ve Seen You.”
Hofflander, also a Broadway veteran returning to reprise her mama role, has opera power and color but also sings with warmth that is enveloping and comforting. Her “Joy of Motherhood” in duet with the wonderful Wichita actress Karen Robu as her best friend and fellow duck mom, Maureen, is knowing fun. Her “Every Tear a Mother Cries (Is a Dream Washed Away),” is a poignant, riveting, motherly anthem that lingers long in the memory and heart.
Stanley Bahorek, a former MTW ensemble member and now Broadway performer (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” the new “February House”), is deliciously despicable as the villainous Cat, who is out to make a meal of Ugly. Dressed in formal black with his hair parted in the middle and swept up to the sides as “ears,” Bahorek prances, preens and minces with poisonous charm and mock sincerity reminiscent of Tim Curry or Jim Carrey. His “You Can Play With Your Food” duet with Ugly is, well, a purr-fect romp.
The absolute scene-stealer, though, is Jody Cook in dual roles of the smug, imperious, overbearing Turkey who is secretly terrified about Thanksgiving, and the laid-back, go-with-the-flow bullfrog, who knows he’s not a prince but is happy with himself anyway. Cook, last seen here in the crime caper “Curtains,” has a booming voice that does wild things with a “gobble” or a “ribbit.” His “(Someone’s Gonna Love You) Warts and All” is a show-stopper – and later a great curtain-call finale.
Also grabbing their share of comic moments are longtime local favorite Timothy Robu, who takes a folksy Larry The Cable Guy approach to Drake, Ugly’s skeptical dad, and ensemble member Ryan Vasquez, who gives a pompous, privileged British officer spin to Greylag the Goose.
There are a lot of children in the show as critter-costumed extras — notably baby bullfrogs in the “Warts and All” number. Director Bryan ignored ancient theatrical warnings to never work with kids or animals (or kids dressed as animals) and gave them interesting things to do rather than just standing around looking cute. He also coaxed strong, uniform performances from the four ducklings who played Ugly’s yellow play-suited nest mates.
Choreographer Amy Baker created distinct movements and gestures for each of the characters to subtly enhance their animal qualities. She also paid homage to vaudeville and English music hall movements for production numbers – nostalgic and rollicking and lots of fun.
Tags: 2012, 2012 Summer Season, Amy Baker, George Mitchell, Honk, J Branson, Jody Cook, Karen Robu, Lawrence Cummings, MTWichita, Ryan Vasquez, Stanley Bahorek, Susan Hofflander, Timothy Robu, Wayne Bryan