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Theater Review

`Honk!' if You Want to See a Cheerful `Duckling'


If you're tired of crass, market-driven spectacles, then "Honk!," based on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Ugly Duckling," may be your anodyne. Staged by Trevor Nunn at the Royal National Theatre in 1999, the show was initially intended as a glorified Christmas pageant but went on to win London's prestigious Olivier Award and is well on its way to becoming a theatrical perennial, in spite--or because-- of its humble origins.

Cheerful, unassuming and surprisingly soulful, the show now waddles into the International City Theatre's Center Theater for a holiday engagement, not to be confused with the recent production by Music Theatre of Southern California at the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium and Alex Theatre.

Director and choreographer Todd Nielsen understands that low-tech effects, done in the spirit of fun, can be far more charming than big-budget extravagance. Modest but evocative, Bradley Kaye's set looks as if it were drawn by precocious children, and Jose Rivera's costumes are colorful and whimsical. George Stiles' music is consistently hummable, and Anthony Drewe's pun-filled book and lyrics elicit plenty of laughs, along with an unexpected tear or two.

The action commences--where else?--in a barnyard. The resident fowl are atwitter over a new addition to their ranks, the unsightly Ugly (effectively hapless Richard Israel), a duck unlike any they have seen before. Even Ugly's father (Stephen Breithaupt) is appalled by his hideous offspring.

Through it all, Ugly's mother Ida (mellow-voiced Mary Jo Mecca) staunchly champions her special child. She cannot, however, defend Ugly from the scheming Cat (campy Tony Spinosa), who lures Ugly away from home and into a perilous adventure.

A caveat. The proceedings are too long by a good half-hour and may prove tedious for very young children. Although this theatrical entree should have been more carefully carved, that's a small quibble, equivalent to poking a gift bird in the drumstick. However you slice it, "Honk!" is a special treat, especially if you're in the mood for a family friendly outing.

"Honk!," Center Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 9. $31-$39. (562) 436-4610. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

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