Childhood was no fairy tale for Hans Christian Andersen. Growing up in Denmark as a tall gangly kid with a big nose, big feet and tusklike teeth, he was mocked by other children. On one occasion, he ran up a tree to escape the taunts of “scarecrow.” Even his headmaster tormented him, forcing him to finish his education with a private tutor before heading to university.
Years later, this brilliant raconteur produced one of his most enduring tales, “The Ugly Duckling” (1843), dealing with the rejection endured by an outsider whose unusual size, shape and color make him a misfit in his community. Andersen called it his autobiography.
George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s “Honk!”, now onstage at the Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington, is a musical re-imagining of the tale with terrific tunes, energetic choreography, sparky characters and a message of diversity, tolerance and acceptance for kids of all ages.
Spring has sprung and Ida (Kim Carson) is waiting (and waiting) like other ducks for her eggs to hatch. All is well until the mysterious fourth egg hatches to reveal Ugly (Adam Hoyak). Although initially shocked, Ida takes Ugly under her wing and teaches him to swim. Everyone on the farm pokes fun at Ugly. Maybe that’s why he’s susceptible to the lure of the Cat (Jake Blouch) who promises him friendship — but in reality, only promises himself a succulent meal.
When Cat accidentally tumbles into a cooking pot, Ugly, thinking they’re playing hide-and-seek, wanders off and gets lost. A worried Ida packs her bags and sets off to find him. Meanwhile, Ugly runs into two military geese (Maria Konstantinidis and Christopher Sapienza) who promise to find his home but get distracted by a shooting in the marsh. He also wanders into the fancy digs of a domesticated cat (Queenie, played by Rachel Brennan) and chicken (Lowbutt, played by Maria Konstantinidis); untangles a beautiful swan (Jenna Pastuszek) from a fishing line; and meets up with a bullfrog (Newton Buchanan), who promises him that their looks will one day be in vogue and they will be loved “warts and all.”
All seems to be lost when Ugly walks headlong into a blizzard. But Ida’s tears unfreeze him and, just like in “The Ugly Duckling,” everything ends happily ever after. And Ugly isn’t as ugly as he thought.
Hoyak is a thoroughly lovable Ugly. You just can’t help but empathize with him when he’s told he’s too ugly to merit even a piece of bread to satisfy his hunger. Carson is the personification of the selfless nature of a mother’s love which drives the action. She possesses a beautiful singing voice and shows how tough it is to be a mother in the numbers “Hold Your Head Up High” and “Every Tear a Mother Cries.” Ida’s husband (Drake, played by Christopher Sapienza) berates her for investing so much time in the ducklings and refuses to sit on the eggs. Ida responds by saying “maybe I’d be better off with a decoy.”
Blouch makes for a fearsome feline, prowling the stage and stalking Ugly with just the right amount of malice. He is thoroughly convincing in the dark humor of “Play With Your Food.” Buchanan gets the most laughs with some great one-liners as Bullfrog, telling Ugly that over-preening is causing him to be “down in the mouth.” He also complains of “having a human in my throat.”
The creative team consists of both DTC alums and new faces. Music director Gina Giachero and choreographer Sonny Leo fill the stage with energy and joy. Thom Weaver’s spectacular lighting design enhances Dirk Durossette’s whimsical set, which combines the vivid colors and guileless art of children’s books. Jill Keys’ costumes pair color with texture to suggest the various farm animals. Ugly appears in argyle sweater until he emerges from a “snow drift” in glittering white formal wear. Director Bud Martin has done a wonderful job with this tremendously entertaining and touching work. Kudos must be given for his allowing this impressive cast room to explore the multiple characters each portrays.
“Honk!” is magical and heartwarming entertainment for anyone who has ever felt like a square peg in a round-hole world. And that’s all of us.
“Honk! The Ugly Duckling Musical” runs through May 12 at the Delaware Theatre Company. For more information and to buy tickets, visit www.delawaretheatre.org or call the box office at 302-594-1100.