‘Honk, Jr.’ at Encore Stage & Studio by Julia L. Exline

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FOUR STARS
Encore Stage & Studio presents Honk, Jr., based on Hans Christian Anderson’s beloved tale, The Ugly Duckling. With book and lyrics by Anthony Drewe and music by George Stiles, Honk, Jr. is an upbeat musical adaptation of a classic recommended for the enjoyment of children 4+, directed by Marji Jepperson and with music direction by Matthew Heap.

Tyler Lazzari (Ugly) and  Emily Richter (Ida). Photo by Larry McClemons.
Tyler Lazzari (Ugly) and Emily Richter (Ida). Photo by Larry McClemons.

Artistic Director Susan Alison Keady and Set Constructor Michael Holland transform the stage into a country farm, complete with a blue-sky backdrop, a wooden fence with flowers wound about it, and a large hen house. As the plot unfolds over a number of seasons and settings, snowfall and frosted trees make their appearances, as well as thick forestry and brush. Lighting Designer Gary Hauptman helps separate the seasons with bright yellows and somber blues. Costume Designer Debra Leonard uses a variety of fleece body sacks and colorful tights to dress the young cast as barnyard animals such as ducks, chickens, turkeys, frogs, and a cat, amongst others.

It’s springtime, and Ida (Emily Richter) banters with her husband Drake (Gus Hebner) about his lack of enthusiasm over their impending family, shown in the background as five large eggs nestled in a nest, with one noticeably larger than the rest. Ida sings a song called, “The Joy of Motherhood,” while waiting for her chicks to hatch. In an amusing and adorable moment, they do — as the cardboard eggs crack open and four little chicks peep out their heads. Drake takes them down to the lake while Ida waits anxiously for her largest egg…who arrives with a loud and startling “Honk!” He is different from the rest — much larger, and with dappled grey feathers instead of the soft yellow plumage of his siblings. Ida immediately accepts him, and sings a song to him called “Hold Your Head up High,” while teaching him how to swim.

However, it seems the others are not nearly as welcoming, branding him with the name Ugly (Tyler Lazzari) and jeering at him in a song entitled “Look at Him.” This barnyard bullying continues, leaving Ugly disheartened in the song, “Different,” lamenting that “different isn’t hurtful, different isn’t wrong, so why can’t we all just get along?” Simple and fun choreography by Sarah Conrad accompanies the songs. Lonely and friendless, Ugly finds himself charmed by the hungry farm Cat (Arami McCloskey) whose false kindness succeeds in luring him away from his mother and into her kitchen! Noticing that her son has disappeared, a worried and determined Ida sets out to find him…but will she be too late?

Tyler Lazzari (Ugly) and Arami McCloskey (Cat). Photo by Larry McClemons.
Arami McCloskey (Cat) and Tyler Lazzari (Ugly). Photo by Larry McClemons.

I must commend the Direction of this show, as the cast if made up of youths who all manage their roles without any trouble. However, trouble did appear at my showing in the form of technical difficulties–including premature light cues and a tangled curtain that took several awkward attempts before finally descending onto the stage during a scene change. Despite these hiccups, the young cast maintained their poise throughout the production.

Standout performances include Rosie Coolidge as Bullfrog, who practically stole the show with her playful song “Warts and All,” reassuring Ugly that looks aren’t everything. Arami McCloskey’s sly song “You Can Play with Your Food” shows immense talent-in-the- making, and Emily Richter gave an impressive vocal performance as well.

A child watching their peers perform on stage is highly encouraging, which is why I recommend Honk. Jr., as well as for the uplifting message it gives: that everyone is deserving of kindness and respect, no matter what they may look like.

Catch a showing of these birds before they fly away!

Running time is 90 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.

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Honk, Jr. plays through January 19, 2013 at Thomas Jefferson Community Theatre – 125 S. Old Glebe Road, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 548-1154, or order them online.