What happens when a theatre assembles a cast and crew whose talents simply outstrip the material they’re given to work with? If you’re very lucky, you get the Globe Theatre’s 2010 production of HONK! a musical adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s story of The Ugly Duckling.
Let me get this out of the way first – I don’t particularly like the script or the music of Honk. The dialogue pops for puns when it swings for wit, the storyline devolves into a series of incoherent set pieces after the halfway mark, and the music, while undeniably catchy, feels like stuff cribbed from Sondheim’s wastepaper basket (so much so, in fact, that some of the themes from Honk feel like direct riffs from Sondheim’s fairy-tale musical Into the Woods. Perhaps this is supposed to work as a homage to the master, but I found it distracting).
And yet there I was, laughing like a ten year old at Sheldon Davis hopping around the stage like a frog. Clapping involuntarily when the squadron of geese drop their brass instruments and start playing kazoos. The Globe Theatre feinted and ducked around my initial reservations and delivered an incredibly entertaining evening.
HONK! is a jaunty reworking of Hans Christian Anderson’s fable of the ugly duckling, rejected by his peers and left to fend for himself, who eventually molts into a beautiful and aristocratic swan. Playwrights Anthony Drewe and George Stiles fill in details of barnyard society – the pompous turkey (Elliott James), the duck family (Caitlyn Stadnyk and Danny Balkwill), the sybaritic and predatory cat (Scott Freethy) – and add a hero’s journey narrative for Ugly (Billy Lake) as he wanders through the wilderness. His return as a beautiful and aristocratic swan restores order to the barnyard and banishes the cat (humans are still a problem, though). The plot is largely a line on which to hang a series of intermittently clever musical numbers.
Despite my feelings about Drewe and Stiles musicals, I had high hopes when I sat down in the audience and realized that the set was really nothing more than a painted floor. In my experience, elaborate sets don’t always work well for Globe main stage productions. Director Jillian Keiley and Alberta’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop made the inspired decision to merge sets and costumes by having actors portray set elements such as windows, doors, plants etc.
The effect of the costumes is extraordinary. In some of the musical numbers, the set sways and dances along with the music, imparting the feeling of old Max Fleischer or Disney cartoons. The anarchic and animist feeling of these numbers utterly circumvents the pop culture pastiche of the music and takes the viewer back to the emotional landscape of early childhood.
The cast is uniformly excellent in multiple roles, executing difficult choreography and playing a variety of musical instruments. It would be unfair to pick favourites (although clearly I’m about to) but I couldn’t get enough of Elliott James as the Old Turkey, who performs the unlikely stunt of singing, gobbling and high-kicking at the same time. Also of note was Natasha O’Brien, who seemed to inhabit the bodies of multiple characters with fluidity and ease. Scott Freethy’s portrayal of the Cat is rancid (in a good way!) with perversion and desire, Billy Lake plays the title character of Ugly with unflagging energy, and Sheldon Davis absolutely kills as the Bullfrog. I only wish that Jeremiah Sparks had been given more rein to sing in that earth-rumbling baritone of his, but I imagine that his voice probably causes structural damage.
There is more praise that I could heap on Honk, but I suggest you go to the Globe and see it for yourself. Tickets can be purchased online at the Globe’s website.