HONK if You’re Feeling Ducky

Paolo Montalban (fourth from left) is Ugly, Michael Genet is Bullfrog and Laura Diorio, Julian Sarin and Owen Doherty are the Froglings in HONK!, the Musical Tale of the Ugly Duckling going up at Two River Theater this week. Photos by T. CHARLES ERICKSON

Old European superstition has it that animals are granted the gift of speech on midnight every December 25. Here in Red Bank, we needn’t go too far into December for certain critters to get positively chatty.

In a stage season of Scrooges and Nutcrackers and benevolent building-and-loan officers, the team at Two River Theater Company has been busily gearing up for the launch of the annual family show production at their branded Bridge Avenue artspace — a recently minted tradition that’s promoted literacy, community and the all-around advancement of talking animals.

It’s a tradition that kicked off in earnest with 2008’s Frog and Toad, continued with Snoopy and friends in 2009’s Charlie_Brown, and upped the ante on interspecies communication with last year’s people-and-puppets production of Charlotte’s Web.

The latter two were directed by Philadelphia’s Matt Pfeiffer and both featured frequent Two River player Doug Hara (Our Town, A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Beginning with the first in a series of student matinee previews on Tuesday, December 6, actor and director team up once more for a project that promotes a musical message of tolerance, diversity and understanding, as put forth by a gaggle of eloquent fowl, frogs and felines — HONK!, a fresh and tuneful take on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of the Ugly Duckling.

Kenita R. Miller and Jim Newman are the parents of one Ugly duckling in HONK!, the 2011 holiday season family show from Two River Theater Company.

Created by the British songwriting partnership of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, the award winning show enjoyed an acclaimed run in London’s West End in 2000, after which it crossed the pond to become an increasingly popular staple of schools and community children’s theater — all without waddling its way into a Broadway run. With the production that opens officially on Saturday, December 10 and continues through New Year’s Day, Two River Theater offers up the sort of high profile production needed to push the show into a possible place in the pantheon.

If you recall the 1997 TV movie musical Cinderella with Brandy Norwood, you’ll remember Paolo Montalban as Prince Charming. Here in 2011, the actor (who also starred in the series Mortal Kombat: Conquest) has gone from Charming to “Ugly” — the name given to the misunderstood and marginalized young duck who searches for acceptance in a cruel world.

Playing the part of Ida, the mother duck who hatches the eggs of Ugly and his siblings Downy, Beaky, Billy and Fluff, is Kenita R. Miller, who praises the show as “sweet and whimsical, with an important moral to it.”

“There’s a fine line when you play animals with human characteristics,” says the actress who played Celie in Broadway’s The Color Purple. “But mother ducks coddle their ducklings…that mothering instinct is about love and protection.”

Doing double duty as ducky daddy Drake and as a frog named Greylag is Jim Newman, a fellow Broadway veteran (and father of ten year old twins) who notes that “(TRTC artistic director) John Dias has a cachet;  people know him from the Public and when they find out he’s running this theater down in Red Bank they’re intrigued enough to want to see what he’s up to.”

Hara, who starred in the title role of Charlie Brown, and who stole the show (and pretty much everything else) as Charlotte’s Templeton the Rat, has transitioned here from rat to Cat — the show’s wily antagonist who feigns friendship with Ugly, with the ulterior motive of making the awkward misfit fowl his dinner.

The production also spotlights a quartet of young local actors as Ugly’s siblings — including Rumsonite Owen Doherty, first seen on the Two River mainstage in 2009’s Melissa Arctic. He’s joined by Julian Sarin (from Two River’s Summer Ensemble program), Gabriella Scerbo (a young veteran of Monmouth County’s Premier Theater Company) and Middletown 8th grader Laura Diorio (from the Count Basie Performing Arts Academy).

Some 35 local kids vied for those duckling roles during open auditions at the theater in early October — trying out for literary manager Jeremy Stoller and TRTC education director Kate Cordaro, who observes that “we like to remind the kids that we’re a professional theater…we’re always looking for kids who are ready to jump in and perform with people who’ve been on Broadway and national tours.”

Interest in HONK! was drummed up well in advance by such events as the now-traditional appearance of the cast during Red Bank’s Town Lighting concert on Black Friday — and by One Book, One Community, a reading and activities campaign that kicked off with a party at the theater on November 13, and made its way to numerous county libraries in the weeks leading up to opening night.

Wrangling the various farmyard fauna is Pfeiffer, of whom Miller says, “You’re safe to be as ridiculous as you need to be with him” — and about whom Newman observes, “As an actor himself, he knows how to talk to other actors…even when the actors are playing birds and cats and frogs.”

Miller also praises the show’s costume designs by Olivera Gajic for their “human quality…it’s not necessarily all duck bills and feathers, which allows us to put across this universal story about being accepted for who you are.”

“It’s very funny, and it speaks to young children,” adds Cordaro. “It’s like an old Bugs Bunny cartoon, in that it has something for everyone, including humor that the parents will pick up on.”

Previewing for the public on Friday at 7pm and presenting two Saturday shows at 12pm and 7pm (opening night), HONK! continues with a mix of matinee and evening performances — including a special Scout Weekend show and the company’s annual Dia de la Familia bilingual offering — through January 1, 2012 (there are no performances December 24 through 26). Tickets ($55 adults, $25 age 18 and under) can be obtained right here.

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