George Stiles and Anthony Drewe’s “Honk!” delights in combining musical comedy with serious storytelling. What makes this Boston Children’s Theatre production so extraordinary is the high-caliber talent — ranging in age from 9 to adult — who make this show their own by delivering sincere, unadorned performances as ducks, bullfrogs, cats, turkeys, geese, and swans of the farmyard.
Stiles and Drewe’s musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” is that rare family musical that manages to be childlike without becoming childish. Under Larry Sousa’s brisk direction, all of Drewe’s jokes, puns, and comic touches land with precision, while Stiles’s melodic presentation of the lessons of tolerance and acceptance are delivered with subtlety and clarity. The BCT production is the Broadway Junior version, which means a few musical numbers have been deleted, but nothing feels left out and the show clocks in at 75 minutes, making it perfect for the youngest theatergoers.
Stiles follows the seasonal structure of Andersen’s tale, beginning with a wonderful introductory number, “A Poultry Tale,” that sets the early summer scene in the farmyard as the father duck, Drake (Tom Rash), is easily distracted from waiting for his duck eggs to hatch, while his wife, Ida (Carly Kastel), sings about “The Joys of Motherhood” while bemoaning her husband’s impatience. Designer Janie Howland playfully renders the “crackable” eggs, out of which pop four chicks and Ugly (fifth-grader Brandon Barbosa). Despite his rag-tag look and loud “honk,” we quickly learn that he is only labeled ugly because he’s “different.”
As Ugly struggles to find his place in the world, his mother worries for his future, singing the ballad “Every Tear a Mother Cries.” Meanwhile, Ugly is befriended by Cat (Nina Barresi), not realizing that her offer of lunch means that he is the main course. He escapes from Cat, but becomes lost and as he tries to find his way home he meets a flock of geese (“The Wild Goose Chase”), a bullfrog (Katie Roeder) who encourages him to wait for the day when someone loves him “Warts and All,” and a young swan named Penny (Ally Aquilina-Piscitello) who sees what lies beneath Ugly’s scruffy appearance. Ugly’s transformation comes as winter turns to spring and everyone sees the beauty that’s been there all along.
With songs like “Every Tear a Mother Cries” and “Warts and All,” “Honk!” might seem a little saccharine, but Sousa has directed his talented ensemble to choose sincerity instead, and every one of these actors delivers a believable character.
Standout performances include Kastel, who plays Ugly’s mother with a sensitivity that never becomes cloying; Barresi, whose Cat is tempting and seductive without being sleazy; and Alec Shiman as both a scene-stealing Turkey and Greylag, the leader of the migrating geese.
As the company closes the show singing, “Just believe, in yourself, don’t be left, on the shelf . . . And you may, find in your own way. You’re a swan,” it’s hard not to cheer.