Ugly duckling takes flight in 'Honk!'

It's a simple tale, familiar to most and resonant to all - the ugly duckling, rejected for being different from the rest of the brood, learns the pain of prejudice and the power of individuality.

But with "Honk!" - the musical that snatched Britain's prestigious Olivier Award for Best New Musical out from under "The Lion King" earlier this year - Anthony Drewe and George Stiles have fashioned a bird of a different feather.

In the first fully staged production of "Honk!" in the United States, which just opened at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass. (playing through July 2), Drewe and Stiles have given Hans Christian Andersen's tale a distinctly contemporary spin - from costumes to syntax to a whole new ending that has Ugly stay with the ducks in his native pond, celebrating his differences instead of flying off to be with his own kind. Other productions of "Honk!" are being planned around the world.

One of the biggest variations in this new version is that Ugly's mother, Ida, fully embraces her son, defending his uniqueness. Ugly, who is clothed as a gawky, bespectacled English schoolboy in drab gray jacket and knickers, is clearly different from the other ducklings, who sport bright yellow overalls and caps and blazing orange Doc Martens that actually make them move a bit ducklike. The more the ducklings and the other lake inhabitants, including Ugly's supposed father, tease the "aesthetically challenged" youngster, the more Ida finds to love.

However, the conniving Cat, determined to make Ugly his most bountiful meal ever, soon separates mother and son, and the show unfolds as a portrait of familial devotion as the two venture near and far to reunite.

Along the way, Ugly meets a wealth of memorable characters. In an old woman's cottage, the uppity cat Queenie and the domesticated hen Lowbutt (so named for her "deficiency in the leg department") sing ever so politely: "It takes all sorts to make a world, but we don't want them here." A flock of geese, in the guise of a squadron of World War II Royal Air Force pilots, lead "A Wild Goose Chase" to help find Ugly's mum. And the showstopper is a chorus line of green spangled and flippered frogs assuring Ugly that he will find someone to love him "Warts and All."

Drewe's lyrics are tremendously clever and witty (actually more geared toward adults than children) and Stiles's songs are sweetly tuneful and memorable, from the Sondheim-like "Look at Him" to the rousing anthem of individuality "Hold Your Head Up High." Ida's ode to her son's uniqueness, "Different," and the poignant "Every Tear a Mother Cries" do in fact bring a tear to the eye.

At 2-1/2 hours, "Honk!" is a bit long for some kids. However, the current production, put together by Drewe and Stiles with the award-winning creative team from England, is first rate, from Peter McKintosh's fantastically droll costumes (nary a feather or mask in sight) to director Julia McKenzie's pacing.

Despite tempting offers from Broadway, the creators have kept their show modest in scale and relatively streamlined to make it easy to produce anywhere. Unlike the opulent grandeur and high-tech stagecraft of current family favorites "The Lion King" and "Beauty and the Beast," "Honk!" is unpretentiously simple and straightforward enough to spawn a host of productions worldwide by a range of theatrical troupes. For example, Drewe just returned from South Africa, where he oversaw a highly acclaimed production of the show in a country in which the show's themes of prejudice and independence have a potent immediacy and resonance.

So while "The Lion King" may rule Broadway, "Honk!" may make its impact on a more meaningful grass-roots level around the globe. This Ugly Duckling is taking flight.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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