By Alex Miller
Ambitious musical take on ‘The Ugly Duckling’ playing at the Aurora Fox
In its first show of the new year, Phamaly Theatre Company bursts out of the gate with Honk!, a musical adaptation of “The Ugly Duckling” story being staged at the Aurora Fox. Along with members of the Phamaly company, the show features two disabled Japanese actors spending time in the U.S. before the show travels to Tokyo in February.
This is one of those productions that has so many wonderful and interesting things in it that it’s hard to know where to start. But there is a particular pair of performances in Phamaly’s production of Honk! that demands the initial spotlight.
Actors Samantha Barrasso and Kanoken Kanokozawa share the role of the tomcat who’s in pursuit of Ugly (the duckling) throughout the play. At first, I thought they were playing a pair of cats, but I later realized that, in a brilliant stroke of casting, it’s one cat played by a deaf Kanokozawa and the blind Barrasso. Together, both wearing identical costumes, they realize the character in a way no single actor could.
Barrasso, a Phamaly veteran, has a beautiful singing voice and also has fun with the snarky spoken lines of the scheming cat. Kanokozawa acts as the cat’s physical expression, articulating the sneaky slinkiness with his lithe body and skilled dance moves along with a panoply of hilarious hand and facial gestures. Along the way, he helps guide Barrasso to her marks while she gives voice to his side of the cat.
Together, they are one, and a more beautiful (and very funny) tandem performance is hard to imagine.
And there’s a whole lot more great stuff going on in Honk!, with actors who live with everything from MS and autism to Cerebral Palsy and physical malformation casting all that aside to delight an audience full of children and adults with this highly imaginative take on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic tale.
As director Stacey D’Angelo writes in her program notes, the ugly duckling’s happy ending comes from his growing out of his “otherness” — something members of the disabled community are unlikely to do. Rather, she suggests, we must look to other types of transformations that can be just as meaningful. Surely a person in a wheelchair who’s able to sing and dance on stage has transcended conventional expectations, and it’s a perfect symbol for this story where that “other” makes their way to their rightful place in the flock.
Honk! lets us know exactly what we’re in store for with the first number, “A Poultry Tale,” where the daddy duck Drake (a goofy-fun Toby Yount) and his wife Ida (Erin Schneider) lead the barnyard in an introduction to their world. For those who haven’t seen a Phamaly performance before, it’s the kind of highly skilled performance that immediately establishes what this company is capable of.
At the moral center of the story is Schneider as the doting mother. We start with her sitting on her four eggs, and there’s plenty of funny banter between her and Drake and the roles of moms and dads. (The script is also rife with barnyard puns.) The first three chicks hatch into perfect yellow ducklings, artfully performed by Hiroko Higashino, Miranda Ireland and Shannon Sauer in matching caps, brown leather jackets and wheeled duckling puppets they push around quacking.
When that fourth abnormally large egg hatches, though, Ida is at first taken aback by the unusual appearance of her son. Soon, as all mothers do, she accepts him for who he is and works to defend him against the ridicule that comes from his siblings, his father and the rest of the barnyard. She does have some allies, though, in the form of her friend Maureen (Kathleen Traylor) and Amber Marsh, who plays the barnyard beauty Dot.
Simply dubbed “Ugly,” the character is beautifully portrayed by another Phamaly regular, Adam Russell Johnson. With his hair teased up into a wild mane and his white outfit offset by a dark, feathered scarf, Johnson plays Ugly as the steadfast hero who, despite the jeers around him, perseveres by dint of knowing at his core who he is.
But first, he must get lost.
Pursued by the cat, he has a series of adventures as he tries to find his way back home. This sets up a variety of memorable numbers, including an encounter with a militaristic gaggle of geese (led by Kevin Pettit and Marsh); a wacky bullfrog singing, you guessed it, about “warts and all” (a charming Jacob Elledge); and a housebound cat and chicken (a very funny Ireland and Sauer).
Ugly has his breakthrough when he meets a swan trapped in a net and frees her. Penny is played by Higashino, beautiful in a white dress and as enamored of Ugly as he is of her. She sees he is a swan — something he has yet to learn himself — and it’s a touching moment when Ugly realizes there’s at least one other person in the world besides his mother who will love him.
Through all of this action, Ida never gives up, and Schneider is fantastic in this role. With her yellow dress and striped socks, she wheels through scene after scene looking for Ugly and delighting the audience with her lovely singing voice. It’s a bravura performance that stands out even among this very strong and talented cast.
Honk! also benefits from fun, colorful costumes by Rachel Finley and a simple yet functional set by Nichola Renaud. This features a shadow screen that’s employed throughout the show to help tell the story — an inventive device augmented by neat puppets designed by Cory Gilstrap.
Though Honk! — at two hours plus — may be a bit long for kids under 6 or so, it’s an overall tremendous show for the whole family. It runs through Jan. 26, so get to the Aurora Fox to see it before the cast takes off for Japan.