Original Scarborough Cast, 1998 (Dress Circle) (3 / 5) Welcome to the duck yard, “Where life is nice and steady / Till we’re plucked and oven-ready” and where Ida, a young mom, hatches an egg containing a distinctly odd duck. He is, in fact, the Ugly Duckling. Welcome also to the English songwriting team of George Stiles (music) and Anthony Drewe (lyrics), whose charming adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen tale was one of the most interesting British musical theater pieces in years. (The show caused a stir in 2000, when it took the Olivier Award for Best Musical over The Lion King.) Honk! follows the Ugly Duckling as he grows up scorned, wanders away, is menaced by a cat, meets a lovely swan, and undergoes various adventures before reuniting with his loved ones. The songs radiate optimism and humor; they’re clever and sophisticated without being showy. There’s also real feeling in such numbers as “Hold Your Head Up High” and “Every Tear a Mother Cries.” Other highlights include “Look at Him,” about the perils of being different, and “You Can Play With Your Food,” sung by that evil cat. The main problem here is length: There are too many songs for this slender tale to bear. The cast, from the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, England (run by playwright Alan Ayckbourn), is appealing, especially Richard Dempsey as the Ugly Duckling and Kristin Marks as Ida. But the real stars here are Stiles and Drewe. — David Barbour
Music Theatre of Wichita Cast, 2001 (MTW) (3 / 5) In this debut American production, some of the distinctively English humor of Honk! is lost, but John Cameron’s expanded orchestrations are even more enjoyable. A solid cast puts over the material with brio: Arthur W. Marks provides touching vocals as the Ugly Duckling; Susan Hofflander is a lovely Ida; Josh Prince has a campy sneer as the Cat; and La Quin Groves, as a bullfrog, has a field day with “Warts and All,” an anthem to self-love that comes complete with children’s chorus. Some of the more whimsical numbers play better on this recording, especially “The Wild Goose Chase,” which spoofs airline-travel cliches as a flock of geese prepare for takeoff. Marks also offers a heartfelt rendition of “Now I’ve Seen You,” the Ugly Duckling’s declaration of love to a fetching female swan. It’s still an overlong and perhaps over-sophisticated children’s musical, but Honk! should be embraced by family audiences everywhere, and this cast album contains many moments of fun for all to enjoy. — D.B.