Onomatopoeia! 

Honk! blows at Circuit; Love Apples: The Musical! was a little sour.

First there was Stomp!, the triumph of urban rhythms that took the world by storm. Blast!, a triumph of derivative hoo-ha, is now playing at The Orpheum. Now, we've got Honk!, a musical retelling of The Ugly Duckling, at Circuit Playhouse. So what's going to be the next great musical sensation to come our way? Gurgle!, maybe? Or Wheeze!? Can Ka-Blooie! be far in the offing? Can I get a pair of advance tickets for Sizzle! through Ticketmaster yet? Boink!, anyone? Ralph!? Pa-Tooie!?

In spite of some truly charming, utterly heartfelt, and unfailingly energetic performances delivered by a uniformly able cast, Honk! is something of a disaster. Who is it for, anyway? Much of the dialogue flies over the heads of younger children. When one duck mourns the loss of her husband, saying, "He became crispy and aromatic before his time," a chorus of young voices from the audience collectively asks, "What does that mean, mama?" A boudoir scene between a domestic kitty and a scruffy Tomcat might play well with sex-obsessed teens, but it's probably a little too much for the wee ones. I won't even go into how upsetting the premeditated slaughter of an entire flock of geese can be. The show's often preachy dialogue will no doubt leave teens snickering for all the wrong reasons and send adults on a one-way trip to dreamland. And that's too bad because this little musical has a big, big heart, and in the right hands it could, for all its faults, be a real charmer. Hans Christian Andersen's story is still compelling, and given America's post-9/11 xenophobia, it seems more important than ever.

Honk!'s costuming (by Ann Chiras), if not the least bit flashy, is often inspired, as ordinary street clothing suggests the basic characteristics of typical barnyard animals. But given the abstract nature of these costumes, it's too bad that director Robert Barry Fleming (the man responsible for the U of M's visually stunning and intellectually provocative Sueño) didn't work more closely with the actors to infuse their performances with a consistent slate of bestial characteristics. Sabrina Hykes' scenic elements -- which I refuse to actually call a set -- are slapdash and amateurish: a true embarrassment. And on top of the poor scenic execution, the stage floor was so filthy it was impossible to tell that part of the stage had been painted blue to represent a pond. There are ways to perform in a virtually empty space without looking both financially and creatively bankrupt.

It doesn't help that many of Honk!'s tunes are utterly forgettable. The lyric "It's a poultry tale of folks down on the farm" is unwieldy enough, but as an oft-repeated refrain it becomes positively painful. Only a Jimmy Durante-style number, "Warts and All," delivered complete with goofy Busby Berkely-style choreography, sticks in the head. And that's not necessarily a good thing.

Jordan Nichols does a fine job as Ugly, the cosmetically challenged waterfowl, though he is always in the shadow of a stellar supporting cast that includes Shani Alexander, Michael Ingersoll, and Drew Stark. A trio of actresses, Rebecca DeVries, Katie Deal, and Angela Groeschen, offers up the evening's most satisfying moments. They provide the audience with glimpses of how good this show could have been under different circumstances.

Honk! at Circuit Playhouse through April 6th.

Hurling Tomatoes

Breezeway Theatre Company is, without a doubt, the most exciting group working in Memphis today, but their most recent production, Love Apples: The Musical!, is proof that this exceedingly clever group can bungle things with the best of them. And here's the good news: Their bungles are generally more interesting than other groups' successes. But Love Apples, which closed this past weekend at TheatreWorks, was, for all its inspired silliness, a repetitive mess that played more like an extended segment from Whose Line Is It Anyway? than a fully realized musical. It was about 45 minutes' worth of really good material stuffed with an extra 90 minutes' worth of filler.

Nate Eppler's willfully goofy script is more literary than it may seem, co-opting elements from innovative satirists like George Saunders, Mark Leyner, and Kurt Vonnegut. Alas, Love Apples never becomes the satire it sets itself up to be. This story about a town where tomatoes have been declared illegal has all of the elements to send up the ugliness of a prohibitive culture. Instead, Eppler and Co. seem happy to make one silly joke after another while substituting sight gags and pop-culture references for genuine substance. What makes this so much worse is that Eppler is aware of his script's sub-sophomoric side, and he has built in too much self-referential material. It slows the show's pace and keeps things choppy. And while it might be fun to call attention to a bad joke or two, too much self-deprecation may leave the audience saying, "You're right. That was awful."

Michael Dziura's typically capable direction here only reinforces the show's improv-comedy feel. It's one thing to coach actors into self-aware, nonrealistic performances. But, in this case, all of the actors seemed to be screaming, "Hey, look at me, look how funny I am," and that is almost never a good thing.

My general feeling is that Love Apples was a fantastic notion that was thrown up too hastily. And while it was overwhelmingly deficient, it still suggests that this young group has all the skills they need to produce exciting and innovative original theater. They have dazzled us in the past, and they will do so again.

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