Review: Lovely swan songs mark the opening of 'Honk Jr.'


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During the singing by Ugly -- as in the Ugly Duckling -- of "Different," my almost-6-year-old whispered, "Is 'nack' even a word?"

"Yes," my wife whispered back, trying to explain the meaning of "knack."

That pretty much was the didactic portion of Point Park University's Playhouse Jr. performance of "Honk! Jr."

'Honk Jr.' and 'Huck Finn'

Where: Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.

When: Through May 26. 2 and 7 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays (school field trip performances are held weekdays).

Tickets: $7; 412-392-8000 and www.pittsburghplayhouse.com.

The kids' musical opened on Mother's Day, which was most appropriate, considering the Mom-will-always-love-you themes of this modern remake of Hans Christian Andersen's 1843 "The Ugly Duckling."

Still new to children's theater, I didn't know what to expect from this production, described as telling, "with catchy songs and colorful characters," the story of "poor Ugly, the duckling, [who] doesn't look or sound anything like his brothers and sisters. Despite being teased, when Ugly is led astray by a very hungry and conniving cat, he's desperate to get back home."

Was this going to be college kids dressed up like cartoon animals speaking baby talk?

Turns out, the show -- the directorial debut of Michael McKelvey -- is much more sophisticated than that, packed with exuberant acting, clever staging, pretty harmonies and several laughs.

My son really was on the edge of his seat, and both parents were fully engaged, throughout the hour and 15 minutes.

The show features a big cast of 17, who often are on the stage all at once, and a dozen actors play dual roles (mostly poultry and frogs) with quick changes of creative costumes -- and with great charm.

Exceptionally well-cast are the leads: Joel Chambers, a lanky and loudly honking junior, as Ugly; senior Caitlin Bower (who also debuted in this show at age 11) as his doting mother duck; and her husband, or Drake, 2013 grad Joe Pudetti.

Junior Allison Griffith also really sinks her teeth, or tries to, into her slinky role as The Cat, whom my little one just knew was up to no good.

But even if you know how the old story goes, this show is a completely charming retelling.

Also charming is how the cast lines up in the lobby to meet and greet young fans and sign photographs.

Honk Jr. is playing in Rockwell Theatre while, in Rauh Theatre, Playhouse Jr. concurrently is running "Huck Finn." We settled on "Honk" thinking "Huck" might be a little too mature for a 6-year-old, but now we'd like to go see that, too.

We're pretty confident that Playhouse Jr. has the knack for doing it just right.

theaterreviews

Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.


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