Saturday, June 21, 2008


Mercury’s ‘HONK,’ pleasant, but could have so much more

‘HONK,’ which is now being staged by Mercury Summer Stock, is one of those charming little shows which should enchant and regale audiences. It is a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘THE UGLY DUCKLING,’ complete with a theme of tolerance.

It has a gentle and pleasant score by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe which does not come close to the wonderful music that Frank Loesser wrote for the film, ‘HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSON, which starred Danny Kaye, and included a segment on the ugly duckling. It is, however, a quite serviceable score.

The stage version opened in 1993 in England and was originally called ‘THE AESTHETICALLY CHALLENGED FARMYARD FOWL.’ In 1997, when the script was revised, the title changed to ‘HONK!”. It went on to win the 2000 Olivier Award, the British equivalent of the U.S. Tony Award, beating ‘THE LION KING’ for the honor.

The story is set in the countryside and features an “ugly duckling,” who somehow is hatched by a hen, who discovers his inner beauty as he becomes a swan. In the process of his journey from odd to beautiful, he is taunted, runs away from home with a cat who wants him for his dinner, meets a wisecracking bullfrog and a lovely female swan. In the process he, and members of the ensemble, sing such songs as "A Poultry Tale," "Warts and All," "Look at Him," "You Can Play With Your Food," "Now I've Seen You," and the charming "Different."

This is a deceptive script. On the surface it appears to be an easy show to stage. It isn’t. There is a strong message, there are creative vaudeville-like actions which require that it become a comic strip in action. It is very British in its base which mandates an understanding of broad British humor.

The Mercury production, under the direction of Pierre-Jacques Brault with production staging by Joanna May Hunkins, is pleasant, but could have been so much more. Mercury prides itself on being able to stage a show in two weeks. In this case, with Brault also working on ‘THE WIZ’ at Cain Park, the short preparation time causes the staging to suffer. Brault’s usual creativity isn’t completely present. That’s not to say the show is bad. It isn’t. It just isn’t all that it could have been with a little more time, insight and focus.

Alex Wyse, one of my favorite local actors, plays The Ugly Duckling. (He was awarded a Times Theatre Tribute for his outstanding performance in Kalliope’s ‘SUMMER OF ’42’ several years go.) Wyse has the correct happy, yet forlorn face, to portray the many moods of the gleeful yet questioning duck who transforms into a gracious swan. He has a nice singing voice and creates a clear character. Danielle Renard as Ida, Ugly’s mother, also has a nice singing voice, but lacks the depth to create a complete character.

Brian Marshall as Drake, Ugly’s dad, kind of walks through the role, losing his accent along the way. Shane O’Neil’s cat just isn’t cunning enough, and his French accent comes and goes, along with a consistent characterization. Sara Hymes is charming as Penny, the lovely swan who gives Ugly insight into himself. Brian Marshall has some excellent moments as Bullfrog, but there was a lot more humor that could have been developed. The rest of the cast varies from good to okay.

As is my custom when there is a child-friendly show, I took the “Kid Reviewers,” my grandsons Alex (12) and Noah (11) to see and comment on the show. The boys liked the show, giving it an 8.5 on a scale of 10. They really liked Wyse, though Alex thought he could have projected more during his solos. Noah indicated that the sets could have been better. “Every place they went still had the barnyard behind them.” They both thought that there was some good humor, but “lots of the funny lines were not stressed” and wondered whether the “little” kids would get some of the adult jokes. They both thought the morals, “It’s more important what you are on the inside than on the outside and don’t pick on others because they are different” were clear.

Capsule judgement: ‘HONK!’ is a clever script, appropriate for everyone from about 4 on up. The Mercury production was “pleasant,” but could have been so much more with a more concentrated effort to develop the multi-facets of the script.