There is something inherently entertaining about people impersonating poultry. Remember the classic hypnotist's schtick? The climax is always when the subject is told to strut and cluck like a chicken.
People often act like poultry. They can't help themselves. I started working at the casino the first year I raised baby chicks. I spent a lot of time watching the baby chicks and I spent a lot of time watching casino patrons. After enough time and enough sleep deprivation, the group of guys standing around watching one guy play blackjack was indistinguishable from the group of chicks standing around watching one chick pick at a hole in the newspaper lining their pen. Craps players flocked from one crap game to the other, just as seagulls flock between picnic tables. Just last week I sat in the waiting room at the hospital next to a group of ladies that cackled and picked at each other like classic "old biddies".
So it may be that HONK! draws upon some sort of common ancestral memory. The show opens with a square dance inspired song and dance number that introduces the inhabitants of the barnyard, including the evil cat, modeled on the classic silent film villain. When the barnyard birds cackle, cluck, and peck the cat into temporary submission, the audience is moved to spontaneous applause and cheering.
The players won their audience over in that first number, and they didn't let go for the entire show. High school productions typically suffer from lost lines, lost characterizations, and arduous scene changes. There was none of that in Leland's production; the players took full advantage of their small but well equipped stage and minimal sets to move the show along from one scene to the next. They smoothly moved between playing people and poultry with perfect comic timing. (Who would have thought that hatching out a clutch of eggs required a Lamaze coach?)
The small size of Leland's student body means that athletes are pressed into roles that they might never attempt in a larger school. Director Jeremy Evans used these guys to their full potential, choreographing numbers that borrow more from the WWE than from your mother's musical theater. (The second unexpected burst of applause is towards the end of the Cat's song "You Can Play with your Food," when, after a long series of chases and feints, the Duckling and Cat suddenly lock arms and tango. I suspect the applause is not for their dancing, but for their stamina.)
HONK! 's score is full of these tempo changes, but it also features several songs that stand on their own, like the lovely "Now I've Seen You." The second act's showstopper, "Warts and All," was a hit even before the chorus line of young frogs makes its appearance, dancing and singing with pure joy. Just when you think that the number couldn't get any better, the orchestra breaks into the bump and grind (this part is your mother's musical theater) that signals every available cast member onstage, as frogs, singing and dancing through a happy, green legged collage of frog philosophy. If you can't get on board, you might as well, as the frog says, "hang it up."
The story line of HONK! is familiar, it is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "Ugly Duckling". Familiarity does not diminish the emotional impact of the show's themes; when Kevin Price, as Ugly sings of his loneliness and confusion in "Different", we are moved. When Ugly's siblings taunt him (crossing the people/poultry line with ease), we are nauseous. Anna Pentiuk's depiction of Ugly's long lost --but still searching-- mother is a moving testament, not just to mothers, but to all who struggle to do right in the face of ridicule and disappointment. Her song "Hold Your Head Up," while initially introduced as a swimming lesson, serves to bolster Ugly through his seasons of wandering.
John Gleason, as the Cat, morphs back and forth between mustache twirling villain and raunchy tomcat with ease and glee, providing the comic relie needed to balance the heavier themes. The supporting cast, working their way through a treasure trove of simple costumes, seem larger than life. They switch roles with their costumes at a dizzying speed, depicting all of Andersen's original characters and a few updated ones, most notably a television news crew and a flock of navagationally challenged Canada geese whose dialogue is lifted from a family car trip.
This is, after all, the reason for musical theater. Out of a classic story and some wonderful songs, with the aid of some simple props and costumes from the attic, the players open a door and show us our own lives, reflected in their characters. The players respect our ability to use our imagination; we allow ourselves to go along for the ride. We laugh, we cry, and in the end we know a little more about ourselves. And we have some new songs to take home. At the end of the show the players go back to being our kids, but a little wiser, maybe. And maybe a little more like poultry.
The cast of HONK! will present their show again on Friday May 20th, Saturday May 21st, and Sunday May 22nd in the Leland Public School Performing Arts Center. All shows are at 7 pm. Tickets are $8 for adults and $5 for students.
If you aren't there, you missed it.