Music Theatre of Wichita’s “Honk!,” which opens July 11, represents a homecoming of sorts.
Two guest stars will reprise their roles from the original 2001 version, two former cast members have been promoted to more extensive roles, and original costumer George T. Mitchell is back.
Most significantly, Wayne Bryan — head of Music Theatre for 25 years — is picking up the directorial reins again for this family-friendly romp, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling.” Wichita’s premiere a decade ago was the regional premiere for the show that had won best musical in London over “The Lion King” and “Mamma Mia!” That version also resulted in the first full-cast album, which has brought international attention to Wichita’s summer theater ever since.
Despite all the crossovers and the past acclaim, Bryan said that this new “Honk!” — by writer/lyricist Anthony Drewe and composer George Stiles — won’t just be a retread of the last one.
“It’s still the same basic show, which is all about being different and learning to be proud of who you are despite bullying and ostracizing,” Bryan said. “But we’re expanding the cast and giving it a new coat of paint. Last time, we had a cast of about 40 to 45. This time, we have 64 by splitting some of the dual roles and increasing the diversity of characters. Before, it was an allegory using mostly birds and fowl. Now we have cows, pigs, sheep and a great variety of fish in our aquarium.”
Bryan said the show should be considered family entertainment, not dismissed as a kiddie show.
“The first time I saw it, I was impressed with the wit and the literacy. It is so well-written that children will understand it on one level, but adults will be captivated by deeper meanings and humor. There is a lot of emotion in the show. One song, ‘Every Tear a Mother Cries,’ even became the anthem for missing children in England,” Bryan said.
“It addresses some harsh truths about human behavior, but making it an allegory with animals makes it easier for people to approach.”
Playing the central figure, named Ugly, is Broadway actor/film star Lawrence Cummings, seen here most recently as Sebastian the Crab in last summer’s “Disney’s The Little Mermaid.”
“Ugly basically doesn’t know he’s different until he is told he’s different,” said Cummings, who was on Broadway with “Jesus Christ Superstar” and in the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World’s End.” “He has to learn to like being different to survive — and learn to appreciate everyone else’s uniqueness.”
“I can identify with him because, when I was growing up in Northern California, I was the only black kid in an all-white school. I believe that kids who are different get things (understand) faster than those who easily fit in,” Cummings said. “Ugly is not a victim. He takes charge of his life. He is a positive role model because he perseveres.”
Reprising their roles from the 2001 original are Susan Hofflander as Ida the duck, Ugly’s protective mom, and Karen Robu as Ida’s best friend and sympathetic fellow duck mom, Maureen.
“Ida doesn’t back down when it comes to her kids,” said Hofflander, who raised two daughters and also has four stepchildren. “She’s in your face. I can relate.”
Hofflander, previously seen here in “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” and “Footloose,” is a frequent opera soloist who has been championed by legendary composer Leonard Bernstein and Broadway director Hal Prince. Robu is a familiar local performer recently seen as Golde in “Fiddler on the Roof” and the lovelorn Roz in “9 to 5.”
Stanley Bahorek was a Jay Bird reporter in the 2001 “Honk!” and is now the smooth, slinky villain of the piece, Cat, who schemes to turn Ugly into a tasty dish.
“He’s a classically elegant villain like Vincent Price or Tim Curry,” said Bahorek, a Broadway and off-Broadway veteran who was here last year as the frenetic leprechaun Og in “Finian’s Rainbow.” “He’s also a comic villain like Wile E. Coyote. What more could you ask for?”
“But while the Cat is an outsider and a bully, I think he’s that way because he was bullied himself as a kitten,” Bahorek said. “That deepens the show’s main message.”
Also given a larger presence since 2001 is Amy Baker Schwiethale, who performed as different birds in the ensemble back then and is now the choreographer. Baker Schwiethale, assistant professor of musical theater at Wichita State University, said she doesn’t miss going from on-stage to backstage because of the increased creativity.
“I loved performing, and it helped me get to this point in my career,” said Baker Schwiethale, who previously choreographed “Camelot” and “Gypsy” for Music Theatre. “But I get so much enjoyment out of mentoring my dancers and watching them go off to do great things.”
“My approach isn’t really different from what they did before, but the farmyard has gotten so much bigger with more variety of animals. The choreography is based on real animal movements,” she said, hopping up to demonstrate. “Ducks and geese throw their whole bodies side to side to walk, while peacocks are poised like Rockettes. And sheep tend to lead with their chests and their heads thrown back. The characters won’t be in detailed animal costumes, so it’s up to the movements to suggest what they are.”
For L.A.-based costume designer George T. Mitchell, who has been with CBS’s “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson” for seven years, the expanded farmyard has given him new design challenges, notably exotic fish.
“They have the look of Cirque du Soleil. They are sort of other-worldly,” Mitchell said. “Cast members have been having fun naming them.”
“If you think of last time as an 8-by-10, this is a mural.”