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STAGE REVIEW

Wheelock’s ‘Honk!’ is a real charmer

By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / February 2, 2010

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Honk, or just stand up and cheer, for a charming musical adaptation of the classic fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling,’’ now at the Wheelock Family Theatre.

“Honk!,’’ by the British team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (who wrote the new music for the Broadway version of “Mary Poppins’’), is a joyous celebration of being yourself, wrapped up in some hummable tunes guaranteed to send you out singing.

Stiles and Drewe, who won the Olivier award in 1990 for the show, begin with Hans Christian Andersen’s story, in which one “different’’-looking duckling, named “Ugly’’ in this musical, doesn’t fit in. But Drewe adds plot twists and complications aimed squarely at the adults in the crowd. There’s Ugly’s efforts to avoid becoming lunch for a Cat (“Play With Your Food’’), his meeting with a flock of migrating geese (“The Wild Goose Chase’’), his adventures with two mismatched pals (“Together’’), and a Bullfrog who tells him someone will love him, “Warts and All.’’ Drewe also pulls out every “fowl’’ pun he can find, cracking wise about everything from Frank Perdue to duck decoys. All of this works because Stiles’s music is so melodic and Drewe’s lyrics move the plot along.

Director Jane Staab keeps the show from drifting into cartoon with the help of Matthew T. Lazure’s spare, evocative, two-tiered set and Dustin Todd Rennells’s simple, color-coordinated costumes that suggest the various barnyard animals without going too far. Staab has also cast a terrific ensemble, whose members add enormous nuance to the characters they portray. Cheo Bourne, a young actor who’s getting his first shot at a starring role with Ugly, is a wonderful singer and dancer with a strong stage presence. It’s a thrill to see someone of his talent get into the limelight.

Boston favorite Aimee Doherty plays Ugly’s mother, Ida, who has the musical’s best song, “Every Tear a Mother Cries’’ and serves as the show’s emotional anchor. Brian Richard Robinson plays the hungry Cat with smooth style, Scott Severance steals his scenes as Greylag, the hilariously misguided leader of the migrating geese, and Peter A. Carey makes an amusing vaudevillian Bullfrog. But it’s almost unfair to single out any one performer, as every member of this company delivers, whether it’s Gary Thomas Ng’s Turkey, landing recurring Thanksgiving jokes, or Sarah deLima’s fussy hen, fretting about her friend.

Choreographer Laurel Conrad Stachowicz’s imaginative dance moves include everything from a Busby Berkeley-style production number to a kick line for newly hatched ducklings. She and Staab have also clearly coached all the actors to give their characters distinctly detailed animal qualities.

Musical director and conductor Jon Goldberg makes his five-piece ensemble sound rich and complex. He sets the tempo for Staab, who starts the show at a high energy level and never lets up. This “Honk!’’ doesn’t just fly, it soars.

HONK! Musical with music by George Stiles, book and lyrics by Anthony Drewe

Directed by: Jane Staab. Sets, Matthew T. Lazure. Lights, Scott Clyve. Costumes, Dustin Todd Rennells. Choreography, Laurel Conrad Stachowicz. Musical direction, Jon Goldberg.

At: Wheelock Family Theatre, through Feb. 28. Tickets: $15-$25. 617-879-2300, www.wheelock.edu