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[whitespace] 'Honk! The Ugly Duckling'
Toad to Toad: Ugly (David Sanchez) cuts loose with a chorus of frogs in 'Honk! The Ugly Duckling.'

The Prodigal Duck

Cabrillo Stage's 20th anniversary show dishes up a feast of barnyard puns

By Tai Moses

IT'S A TRUTH universally acknowledged that good family musicals are as rare as hen's teeth. Mercifully, Cabrillo Stage's 20th anniversary show, Honk! The Ugly Duckling, proves itself to be an ideal all-ages production.

This Oliver Award-winning adaptation adds lots of flashy plumage to the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about the duckling with the identity crisis. No sooner has the geeky, bespectacled Ugly (David Sanchez) shed his eggshell when he becomes the "yolk" of the duckyard, spurned by all but his devoted mother, Ida, who tells him to "hold your head up high." Lured away by the sinister Cat, who smells culinary potential in the baffled bird, Ugly soon becomes hopelessly lost. Ultimately, after a slough of musical adventures and felicitous encounters with zany characters, Ugly discovers the meaning of his mysterious molt.

Anthony Drewe's clever book and lyrics and George Stile's catchy score plunder the barnyard of every waterfowl pun in the English language. Ida, played by three-season Cabrillo Stage veteran Leslie Rhodes, has the best voice and most of the best lines in the show too. "I sometimes think I would have been better paired with a decoy," she says ruefully, noting that once again her errant husband Drake is "ducking his responsibilities."

Trevor Little, as the Cat, is delightfully dastardly, a villain in pinstripes, spats and comic-book French accent. Brandishing a cleaver of cartoon proportions, he chases Ugly into a giant Acme hot plate, hoping to turn him into duck a l'orange. Kids will love Cat's antics as well as his signature song, "Play With Your Food."

As the Ugly Duckling, Sanchez is a capable performer and singer, but he lacks the stage presence required of a lead. While most of the cast dispatch their roles with a nuanced blend of wit and camp, Sanchez's Ugly is a bit of a shrill. Undoubtedly he'll add stuffing to this churlish chick as the run continues.

Janie Scott's outstanding direction and choreography are showcased in ensemble scenes like a spectacular snowstorm and a shimmering underwater panorama. Big musical numbers like a croaking chorus of Busby Berkeley frogs in flippers and goggles and a ragtag squadron of geese preparing for takeoff are seamlessly executed.

Instead of unwieldy animal costumes, costumers Skip Epperson and Maria Crush have wisely gone minimalist, relying on accessories and body language to suggest each creature's personality. Ugly wears a British schoolboy's uniform and cap. A swan family is resplendent in wraparound sunglasses, elegant white coats and black tights, a wonderful contrast to the barnyard ducks in their multicolored peasant garb and boots. I won't give away Ugly's transformation, but suffice to say it's a metamorphosis fit for a king.

Skip Epperson's simple yet effective set design is inspired--stage and backdrop are concentric ovals, props are exaggerated cartoonesque creations.

Adults may find Honk!'s message of tolerance and diversity heavy-handed, and the show may seem long to small children. But the flawless orchestra--conducted by artistic director Lile O. Cruse--and the general feeling of fun conveyed by the polished ensemble cast make these defects forgivable.

A highlight is the song "Together," performed by the Cat, the lovestruck feline Queenie (the honey-voiced Geri Carlson Sauls) and Queenie's pal, Lowbutt the hen (Hilary Little). As the pampered Queenie casts off the shackles of domestication--literally a bathrobe and glasses--and dances a bawdy tango with the depraved Cat, Honk! really does take wing.

Honk! The Ugly Duckling plays Wednesday- Saturday at 8pm, Saturday matinee at 2pm, Sunday matinee at 3pm, through Aug. 12, at Cabrillo College Theater in Aptos.Tickets are $16-$22. 479.6154.

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From the July 18-25, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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