Delaware Theatre Company is flying steady with Honk!, a musical based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling. Directed by Bud Martin, this popular stage import (it won Britain’s coveted Olivier Award in 1993) has been seen in over 8,000 productions worldwide, but it’s not well known here.
Anderson himself labeled this an autobiographical tale. That’s perhaps one reason that the journey of a duckling who's different from the rest of the flock, and his ultimate acceptance and adulthood, has touched readers since its 1843 publication. In his program notes, Martin says that the Danish poet and storyteller “melds together the childlike and the profound with exceptional artistry.”
The story has been adapted myriad times, and here George Stiles (music) and Anthony Drewe (book and lyrics) have embellished it with contemporary references. Though Honk! was written in 1993 and Martin saw it years ago, he decided to bring it to DTC now, feeling that its unvarnished message of tolerance is particularly resonant.
Ugly is born
The musical opens as the duck Ida (Barrymore Award winner Kim Carson) and husband Drake (Christopher Sapienza) wait for their five eggs to hatch. A huge one generates speculation among their farmyard animal cronies (Newton Buchanan, Rachel Brennan, Marie Konstantinidis, and Jenna Pastuszek). Also awaiting the hatchlings—hungrily—is the villainous Cat (Jake Blouch).
Four eggs produce normal ducklings (a rotating cadre of grade-schoolers, some from DTC’s Summer on Stage program). But out of the oversized egg comes a large, gawky hatchling who is immediately mocked, ostracized, and named Ugly (Adam Hoyak). When the poor bird can no longer stand his treatment, Ugly leaves the barnyard and becomes lost. The hero has a series of picaresque adventures as Ida searches for him, finding her son as a transformation takes place.
Story theatre lives
In “story theatre” like this, actors play multiple roles using simple scenery and props. The style was codified in the 1970s by Paul Sills’s Chicago troupe, whose dramatized fairy tales became a Broadway hit and started many careers, evolving into the famed Second City. Honk! requires that six members of the effervescent DTC company winningly take on 21 different parts. Only Carson and Hoyak have single roles, and both performances are well sung and dramatically moving.
The show’s most interesting songs and situations occur after intermission, when the tale transfers to the pitfalls of the big world. The theme of the second-act opening number “It Takes All Sorts” still bedevils us: it might take all sorts to make our world, “but we don’t want them here [because] our sort’s best.” “Together” is a comic tango of codependence, abandonment, and seduction that moves the work more squarely into our era. The musical pastiche also includes a vaudeville buddy song, “Warts and All”; Ugly’s affecting ballad, “Different”; Cat’s villainous romp, “Play with Your Food”; and a chorus of kazoos played by a flock of migrating geese.
Honk!’s seemingly simple stagecraft is actually very sophisticated. Scenic designer Dirk Durossette’s fairy-tale flats and Mother Goose-style cutout set pieces are perfectly calibrated to this fable, yet unequivocally universal. Thom Weaver’s lights, straightforward and subtle when required, turn suddenly magical during a winter snowstorm. And Jill Keys created costumes that are cleverly anthropomorphic without being silly or trite.
The magic continues
Wearing a farmer’s cap, music director Gina Giachero conducts her spritely five-piece band from an onstage chicken coop, and Sonny Leo’s fun choreography seems intricate without making too many demands on a cast that includes nondancers and children. Some British jokes, vocabulary, and situations are not easily followed, especially by young audiences. In a shooting-party scene, for example, plot points relating to this very British activity were obscured by the cast’s tendency to pass quickly over such unfamiliar things.
This is a sentimental tale, and Honk!’s creators make no pretense of anything else. But Martin has made the wise directorial choice of guiding his actors to perform with directness and restraint, not commenting on the script or letting it descend into mawkishness. The few over-the-top moments mandated by the writers fit well into Martin’s straightforward framework.
Unwilling to leave sophistication at the theater door? Then this show is not for you. But both adults and children in the audience were riveted and more than a few tears were shed at the end of this affecting production, an optimistic tale of triumph over obstacles that has worked its magic for more than 175 years.
What, When, Where
Honk! The Ugly Duckling Musical. Music by George Stiles, book and lyrics by Anthony Drewe. Directed by Bud Martin; musical direction by Gina Giachero. Through May 12, 2019, at Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water Street, Wilmington. (302) 594-1100 or delawaretheatre.org.
DTC is a wheelchair-accessible venue. On Tuesday, April 30, at 6:30pm, there will be a relaxed performance of Honk! that is welcoming to anyone with sensory sensitivities.