It's 'The Ugly Duckling' with a Brit twist

It's a rare summer treat -- an award-winning new musical you've probably never heard before is coming to the Duluth Playhouse for an extended run. "Honk!" is based on the Hans Christian Andersen story "The Ugly Duckling," and the musical has been...

It's a rare summer treat -- an award-winning new musical you've probably never heard before is coming to the Duluth Playhouse for an extended run.

"Honk!" is based on the Hans Christian Andersen story "The Ugly Duckling," and the musical has been performed all over Europe, much of Asia, plus many locations in Canada and the United States. But this will be a near-premiere for the region -- even the Children's Theater in Minneapolis won't get to "Honk!" until after the Duluth Playhouse is done.

In 2000, "Honk!" won the British equivalent of a Tony Award -- a Sir Lawrence Olivier award -- for best musical, beating out "Mama Mia" and "The Lion King."

But don't get the wrong idea -- this isn't just a kids show.

"This is not 'The Lion King,'" said director Bob Mitchell. "We're staging it as people, not trying to be like animals with whiskers and headpieces. ... They are people who are people with some animal characteristics."


That's just as the creators, writer Anthony Drewe and composer George Stiles, want it -- a family musical with real, full blown characters, not cartoons.

Renegade and Playhouse vet Bonnie Baker's performance of Ida, Ugly's mother and one of the lead roles, the approach is like that for any other character. She's preparing for the tear-jerky mother parts by "just thinking of how a mother would feel," drawing on her own experience. The nagging wife aspect of Ida's character did not come so naturally -- "Obviously, I'm not that way at home," she says with a grin -- but the only non-human characterization for her is a ducky butt-wiggle and a simulated swimming motion from time to time.

Mike Venske, a recent arrival from the Twin Cities with experience there in church and community theater, is playing Ugly. He's drawing from life, too.

"What I ... do is kind of think back to when I was younger," he said.

And that works for his character transformation, too, as he grows into a human swan and learns to appreciate his own unique character.

"It's not what we look like. It's the kind of personality we have, the kind of people we are," Venske said.

Yes, that theme lives on straight from the original Ugly Duckling story. On the Stiles and Drewe Web site, the author describes it this way: "The principle theme of the show is clearly the acceptance of others who may appear different for whatever reason. In our increasingly multi-cultural society school bullying, racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and any other 'isms' you care to mention are still prevalent to varying degrees. I don't even like the word "tolerance" as this implies having to put up with something that, in truth, is to one's disliking. Acceptance, compassion, and understanding are far better words."

Mitchell says that theme -- plus the power of a mother's love and the transformation of maturing into our own unique place in the world -- are strong in "Honk!"


"Although I don't see us as hitting the audience over the head with that, it can't be avoided," he said. "It'll just come through loud and clear on its own."

However, he emphasizes that it's not just a message show. He says it ranges from funny to poignant and is written and paced to appeal to parents and children.

The dialogue is witty, and since there are British and American versions of the script, the dialect won't be too confusing.

Of course, one can't talk about a musical without talking music. Local music critic, choir director and teacher Sam Black is directing the orchestra. Both Mitchell and Black said working on a musical that will be new to most of the audience is both an opportunity and a challenge. It's an opportunity because this production gets to create a first impression of the songs for most of the audience, rather than repeating what a Julie {IMG2}Andrews may have already made memorable. It's a challenge because the music -- and there's a lot of it -- is also new to the cast.

"It takes a while to learn it. ... But the music, when done, is really beautiful, and (there are) some really haunting songs," Mitchell said.

He is struck by Ida's song, "All the Tears a Mother Cries."

Black, who characterizes the music as bubbly and perky, in the genre of gentle rock, doesn't expect "Honk!" to bump Oklahoma off the stage musically. But he said some of the music is super and will impress the audience every night.

For instance, in the middle of Act II the frogs sing "Warts and All."


"You can't get the kids to stop singing that one," Black said. "It's very infectious."

Other songs may even draw people back for a repeat performance. "A couple of the ballads, they'll want to come back and hear again," Black said.

The singers will be miked, along with some of the music from the pit orchestra. Due to the relatively long run of 16 shows planned for "Honk!" and the summer season, one of the busiest for musicians, the orchestra will also change from night to night.

Venske said some of the notes are high and he's still learning the music.

But Baker has a system down. "I practice at home and just stop whenever my voice seems to be too tired," she said.

The show received generally good reviews in Britain, and Mitchell thinks the Northland will find it worthwhile.

"I think word will get around," he said. "I hope we fill the house every night."

"Honk!" opens Friday, June 27, at the Duluth Playhouse. Dates are June 27-29, July 2-3, 5-6, 9-13 and 17-20. Call 733-7555 for reservations and showtimes.

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