Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, November 2005

The Mill City production of Honk! is everything that community theatre should be. Dozens of local folks, from the smallest to the tallest, are involved. Everyone has a chance to dress up and sing and dance for their friends and relations, and they all seem to be having a wonderful time. And their enthusiasm is contagious.

Under such circumstances, critical words from a Curmudgeonly Critic are unnecessary and uncalled for. Of course there are times when the wrong notes are hit or the acting is less than professional, but perfection is not the point of this endeavor. The point is to involve the community, entertain the community, and have fun. The show achieves all those goals admirably, so I will confine my remarks to what is good and right about this production, because community theatre deserves your support, and mine, and because the show is just plain fun.

In case you have been living under a rock, Honk! is a musical based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the Ugly Duckling. Because it is squeaky clean and adapts itself naturally to broad community involvement, Honk! has become instantly popular with educational and community theatres across the nation. On this Web page alone I have been listing three or four local productions annually.

Honk! had its genesis in Britain in 1997, and became fully fledged (I’m sorry, but foul yolks, er, fowl jokes are inevitable in any review of Honk!) during a 1999-2000 production at the National Theatre in London, where it won the Olivier Award (London’s equivalent of the Tony) for Best Musical.

Creators Anthony Drewe (book and lyrics) and George Stiles (music) were hailed by the London Daily Telegraph as “…the brightest hopes for the future of the British Musical.” I find this unfortunate for the future of the British musical because, judging from this score alone, Drewe and Stiles are no Rodgers & Hammerstein/Lerner & Loewe/Stephen Sondheim/Frank Loesser/Insert-the name-of-your-favorite-musical-creator(s)-here. The score is tuneful and the lyrics are cute but neither are memorable or particularly sophisticated. But considering that Drewe and Stiles seem to be aiming to make their fortune not as the next Cole Porter or Noel Coward but as a team to be counted on for wholesome family fare that is neither offensive to the audience nor overly challenging for the performers, they are right on the money. In addition to Honk! they have penned books and scores for Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, The Three Musketeers, Just So, and Tutankhamun, shows that I am sure will be popping up on this side of the Atlantic with increasing regularity in the coming years.

The story remains true to the original – duck hatches cygnet who is universally ridiculed and misunderstood, cygnet goes on journey of self-dicovery and emerges as a handsome swan. Happy ending. But in order to make the show more than half an hour long, and in order to provide as many parts as possible for a community group such as Mill City, Drewe has added many twists and turns along the way. Ugly (Josh Sprague) is pursued by a hungry cat (Mollie Simon), who sees him as a super-sized McNugget. Ugly’s parents Ida (Sarah Simon) and Drake (Josh Bishoff) get a little back story of marital squabbling, and Ugly’s siblings Beaky (Tanelle Ciempa), Billy (Trevor Ciempa), Downey (Tay Santelli), and Fluffy (Catherine Marceau) get some lines and sassy back-talk. Other barnyard fowl – duck Maureen (Staci Downey), chicken Henrietta (Mickey Crews), Turkey (Dylan Waterhouse), and grande dame duck Grace (Maryanne Santelli) all weigh in with their opinions on Ugly’s appearance and suitability for residence.

After being lured out of the barnyard by the cat, Ugly gets lost and goes on his year-long adventure. Along the way he meets up with a pair of geese: Greylag (Glenn Wilson) and Dot (Cassie Barlow, but due to illness I saw Sheri Simon in the role) and their “squadron” – Barnacles (Mickey Crews), Webfoot (Lauren Marceau), Longneck (Kaitlyn LaValley), Pinkfoot (Francesca Santelli), and Snowy (Ally Briggs) – who set off on a “wild goose chase” to track down Ugly’s home from the air, only to thwarted by the onset of hunting season.

In the meantime Ida is dutifully seeking her lost son, while Drake chafes at wearing an apron and doing maternal duty back at the nest. A nosy TV reporter Maggie Pie (Maryanne Santelli) helps spread the news of Ugly’s unusual appearance and mysterious disappearance.

Ugly next stumbles into the home of Queenie (Staci Downey) and Lowbutt (Cassie Barlow, but I saw Ally Briggs in the role), a domesticated cat and chicken. They recognize him from the TV reports and try to call and report they have found him, but the Cat shows up to foil the plot. Only a brief romantic interlude between the Cat and Queenie buys Ugly time for escape.

And its time for Ugly to discover love as well, when he meets a young female swan Penny (Elizabeth Urban) with whom he is instantly smitten, but just as they get acquainted she has to leave on the annual migration. Then Ugly meets up with a Bullfrog (Dave Costa) and his many offspring (they aren’t still tadpoles, are they froglings?) who give him good advice about making the most of what you’ve got. Drewe and Stiles seem to conveniently overlook the natural fact that a duck/swan would have gobbled up this large brood of frogettes just as fast as the cat would have made a snack of him.

With the Cat once again in pursuit and winter setting in, Ugly and the Cat find themselves frozen solid by the time Ida catches up with them. But a mother’s tears melt the ice, and Ugly is revealed as a full-fledged swan, replete with white tie and tails, in time for the big reunion with his family and Penny, and a rousing finale.

All of the leads sing and present themselves very well, which provides strong support for the bit players and young chorus members. Sprague gives a simple and touching performance as Ugly, the only drawback being the Sprague himself is a very good looking young man and even a pair of Clark Kent glasses and a geeky tweed jacket didn’t convince me otherwise. Sprague has a wonderful singing voice and it is a pity that, even for this leading role, Drewe and Stiles haven’t created some more exciting and challenging numbers.

Sarah Simon and Bishoff are appropriately parental, although Drewe has written the roles as gross stereotypes of heterosexual marriage. Drake and Ida are pretty much Ralph and Alice Kramden in feathers.

Mollie Simon is a hoot as the Cat. This particular cat is a Tom, so Simon has to not only play a member of a different species, but a member of a different gender, both of which she does admirably. Dressed in a sleazy pin-stripe suit and tie, with her coiled up in two ear-like knobs on either side of her head, Simon evokes sinuous cat-like mannerisms along with just the right amount of testosterone-charged bravado. This is a plum part and she makes the most of it – if only she would work on projecting her voice so that she can be heard better, particularly while singing.

Downey is another stellar feline as Queenie. Sizzling in a slinky sequined gown, her tango number with Simon is delightful. Downey is another strong singer, and musical director Lee Rutan uses her voice well to prop up the distaff chorus, and to provide soaring descants where called for, as he uses Sprague and Bishoff to assist the male voices.

I was impressed with the talents of youngsters Ally Briggs, who seemed to step effortlessly into the role of Lowbutt in Cassie Barlow’s absence, and Dylan Waterhouse, who brought a big voice and great stage presence to his role as the Cranberry-sauce-challenged Turkey. I hope these two continue honing their craft and performing locally – I smell star quality!

Costa and his frog chorus practically steal the show with their big second act production number Warts and All. The young and peppy chorus did a great job singing out and singing against Sprague and Costa while performing their dance moves with zest. It has been a long time since I have seen such a large group of very young performers so focused and excited about their work. Kudos to director Mike Grogan, Rutan, and choreographer Urban for instilling this discipline and enthusiasm.

It is a pleasure to see north County theatre stalwart Maryann Santelli on the stage instead of behind the scenes for a change. She is obviously having a ball with her diva turns as Grace and Maggie Pie, and I am sure it is a treat for her to share the stage with her children Tay and Francesca. There are many family groups featured in this show, which is lots of fun for all concerned.

Considering the enormity of the cast and the space restrictions in St. John’s Parish Hall, Grogan and Urban have done the best they could with traffic flow and control Sheri Simon, Wilson, and Rutan have come up with a creative and colorful set that again maximizes the possibilities in a tiny space. Sheri Simon and Pam Langlois of Hemming Way have collaborated on dozens of zippy costumes that given clear indication of a character’s species and intent, while allowing for freedom of movement.

Rutan conducts, plays piano and captains a little pit band consisting of Lisa Jenkins on flute, Matt Jenkins on bass guitar, and Rob Tatten providing percussion. They sound snappy and provide good support for all the singers, amateur and professional.

This is a BIG production of a full-scale musical requiring an enormous effort and donation of time, talent, and treasure by all involved, and the end result is a wonderful entertainment for the whole community. I would encourage you to go (though be warned that “Honk!” runs a full 2 ½ hours, so very young children will get restless) and support this superb effort.

Honk! will be performed November 4 & 5 at 7 p.m., November 6 & 13 at 2 p.m., and November 12 at 2 & 7 p.m. in the Parish Hall of St. John’s Church in North Adams. The show runs two and a half hours and is suitable for the whole family. Tickets are $7 for adults and $5 for children, students and seniors. Advance tickets may be reserved by contacting Sheri Simon at 413-663-7879. For more information visit the Mill City Productions Web site.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005

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