The Ugly Duckling is the Hans Christian Anderson tale of a misfit chick raised by ducks and made to feel inferior for being different, who then matures into a graceful beautiful swan and is welcomed by a flock of other swans. Stories of happy resolution and appreciation for young people who don’t fit in have always been in demand, although the expectations of the story tropes have changed even within my memory, as, for example, some modern viewers find the bullying in the 1960s television special “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” to be egregiously cruel, even with some happier resolutions at the end for the red-nosed reindeer, the dentist elf, the kind abominable snow monster, and other picked-on characters.
Honk! is a musical version of the story, with music by George Stiles and book and lyrics by Anthony Drewe, which debuted in England in 2003. And I liked this version better than previous versions I’d encountered, partly because the audience and the ugly duckling (played here by Mathew Bittroff, appropriately awkward in mismatched socks and lopsided stance) could see right from the start that the mother duck (Kayla Nickel) cared about him and admired his unusually good swimming ability, and because even when he was lost, the device of overhearing a television appeal let him see that his mother still loved him and hadn’t given up. During the performance I got wondering whether the happy ending would still have him flying off with the flock of swans, as in the original, and I was relieved to see that after he’s both discovered himself as a swan and found his duck family, he decides to stay on the lake with the ducks and with his swan sweetie Penny (Paula Humby). It was also nice that after some initial jokes about Drake avoiding family responsibilities and not bonding with Ugly, he stays home to take care of the ducklings and the nest while his partner Ida goes searching for Ugly, and is happy to have him return.
This version of the story has an obvious villain outside of the sibling/community bullying: a Cat, played with feline grace and predatory instincts by David Johnston of The 11 O’Clock Number and Two One-Way Tickets’ The Full Monty. A young audience member behind me was complaining with satisfaction at intermission that he or she Didn’t Like That Cat. I found the analogy with human would-be predators equally disturbing. The way that the Cat concentrated on the youth who was distanced from his family and discouraged him from checking in with his mother was very similar to the grooming and luring behaviour of a child molester portrayed by Jake Tkaczyk in his original piece Play Date at Red Deer College a few weeks ago.
Johnston’s feline mannerisms were readily identifiable and very funny, particularly the way he shot his claws and caressed his astonishing facial hair. Elisa Benzer as Turkey, and Will Mitchell as Drake and Bulldog were also particularly impressive in capturing the essence of their characters’ species in posture and movement.
In the musical, once Ugly has been separated from his family and farmyard community by the Cat and after he escapes the cat, he spends a long time searching for home and encountering various other characters – a military formation of migratory geese, a couple of domesticated pets, a bullfrog and his chorus, and a mother and daughter swan – before being found by his mother and discovered to have molted into a recognizable swan. This gave the story more structure, and also provided opportunities for some funny characters, puns, and song/dance numbers. Most of the cast played two or three parts. The duckling siblings were Laena Anderson, Rachel Kent, and Lindsay Phillips, in yellow bows and shirts. Nicole English shifted posture, demeanour, and a few costume details to distinguish between Maureen (a moorhen friend of the mother duck), Lowbutt (a domesticated chicken), and Mother Swan.
The music for the show was provided by Erik Mortimer on keyboard. (The small child behind me commented after intermission “He’s really good!”) The songs were pleasant and catchy and the choreography fun to watch and suitable to the characters and species. I had trouble discerning the words in one or two of the early songs, which was irritating because the words I could make out were very clever, and I’m not sure whether the problem was tempo or balance with the keyboard. I particularly enjoyed Kayla Nickel’s singing voice. I think the last thing I saw her in was MacEwan’s Spring Awakening, although I may have seen her in something since.
HONK is a production of Grindstone Theatre, the people who do The 11 O’Clock Number. It’s playing at the PCL Studio space at the Arts Barns until April 26th. Tickets are at Tix on the Square or at the door.