The play, a retelling of The Ugly Duckling, won the 2000 Olivier Award for Best New Musical -- the British equivalent to a Tony -- and Brandt Blocker's local premiere of this unusual hit is well crafted, exuberant and fun.
To begin with, the visuals are super. The set (by Bill Walker) is the cove of a lake. Luxuriant bulrushes line the wings. In the background, there is a wooden pier. It's a bold, simple, inviting decor -- childlike, without being patronizing (a description that fits the show, generally). Carroll Sauber's imaginative costumes are a pageant worth watching in themselves. There are no bird masks or bird makeup. Baseball caps of different colors represent the bills and topknots of water fowl. Orange leggings and matching sneakers give us legs and feet. Plumage is suggested by a witty variety of accessories. Then, there is the cat, a sort of spiv in a three-piece pinstriped suit, with a gold chain around his neck and a slicked back hairdo that peaks upward into two ears. The ugly duckling himself is an Edwardian schoolboy in dun-colored short pants. And there are many other adroit parallels.
We follow the trials and travails of a duck named Ida (Michelle Marcotte) who sits on her clutch of eggs, knitting, while her drake (Jason P. Junius) struts around flirting with the kind of chicks that hang out in late-night watering holes. The last hatched of Ida's offspring is Ugly (Hardy Weaver), a gentle, ingratiating fellow who honks when he should be quacking.
Enticed away for lunch by the foppish feline villain (Bryan Wagar), Ugly gets lost and wanders through a series of encounters with, among others: a squadron of World War II British Air Corps geese (Jason Junius and Holly Masson), house pets (Allison Hymel and Barbara Weaver), a bullfrog (Rendell Debose) and finally, a family of swans (Shannon Corrigan, Megan Langhoff and Sal Mannino). While Ugly's woebegone Mom treks the world in search of him, his ne'er-do-well dad stays home and minds the flock.
There are lots of songs and many delightful dance numbers (choreographed by Jauné Buisson). The music at times manages complexity without losing its immediate appeal; in that sense, Honk! achieves what most children's operas aspire to -- with results as dismal as their aims are lofty.
My own inner child did squirm occasionally and turn its mind to the thought of perhaps getting some more popcorn when I realized we were about to endure another slow song about a mother's tears or that sort of thing. But, it was never too long before the cat showed up with his dastardly charm or some other bit of fun broke out -- like the philosophical wise guys of a bull frog and his Busby Berkeley chorus of tadpole chorines, or the stiff-upper lip aviators, or the house cat with her naughty taste for slumming.
But, say, Mrs. Duck, where did that swan egg come from anyway? Looking for love in all the wrong places, were we? If only the little aquatic housewife has whiled away her empty hours with a harmless hobby, like bingo.
Of course, that can lead to other problems. As I found out at The Queen of Bingo, currently packing them in at True Brew. This oddball show, directed by Dane Rhodes, stars two divas of indiscretion at their most boisterous: Becky Allen and Sandy Bravender.
The little auditorium has been converted into a church bingo hall, with long tables on which the audience, armed with daubers and cards, gets to compete for prizes. While Father Mac (Michael Sullivan) calls out the numbers and chides his flock for preferring numbered squares to Holy Communion, Sis and Babe gossip, quarrel, wisecrack and wreak congenial havoc while hectoring their mom -- played with an impeccable and hilarious deadpan by Doris Methe.
Throughout all this, the audience feverishly daubs their cards and hopes for a winner. Puzzled by the proceedings, I turned to the elderly lady sitting next to me and asked her what brought her to the show. "I'm a bingo nut," she said. Then, while Sis, on stage, soliloquized about how angry her kids would be if they knew how much money she really spent on bingo, my neighbor poked me in ribs: "It's true, it's true." At which her daughter, two seats down, told her to hush. "Anyway," the woman whispered, with annoyance. "I hope this doesn't last too long; there's midnight bingo at Azalea."
Talk about illusion and reality. Pirandello never even came close to this one.