The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis opened its 34th season last weekend with an exceptional production of a new musical, Everything's Ducky. An attractive, talented and hardworking cast, barely but brilliantly constrained by Gip Hoppe's exuberantly imaginative, admirably disciplined direction, lays out a retelling of the tale of the ugly duckling that in less competent hands might have become nauseatingly sugary-sweet. Yes, Everything's Ducky is cute, but tongues firmly in cheek all around keep sentimentality from interfering. Yes, it's also whimsical, but whimsical with an attitude -- the ducklings need their butts kicked, and the carnivores (two whacked-out coyotes and a conflicted wolf) are, like all good villains, much more interesting than the good folk. Everything ends happily, but too soon -- the opening-night audience wanted to applaud far longer than they were allowed, and if they can get seats (the Rep now has more than 20,000 subscribers), many will come back for a second helping, partially to catch some of the gags that flew by too fast for proper appreciation.
Dramatization of fairytales usually means bad art, the sort of theater -- poorly imagined, worse written and performed -- that turns the children it's aimed at into art haters and moves them to matricide. Everything's Ducky, however, has no sentimental message, and even true love poses one of Western civilization's great questions: What's a wonderful woman like that doing with such a dope? The script and performers only play around at playing animals, so chicken and other barnyard jokes just tease the animal-fable form. Beaver Bauer's costumes mostly suggest the dramatic fauna, sometimes in high-camp humor (Mrs. Bovine's teats, for instance), sometimes with an eerie beauty (King Mallard and Prince Drake). Robert Bissinger's set design also helps out a good deal, once again, with great imagination and inventiveness.
That costumes and set are so crucial to the production says that there's weakness elsewhere, and it's with the music and lyrics: The former is bright and bouncy but formidably forgettable; the latter are too forced. Whatever their faults, however, they're better than the words and quasi-tunes of Les Miz, Miss Saigon et al. rolled together. The book, on the other hand, is as strong as can be -- funny, fast and consistently surprising. And if the first act is stronger than the second, well, what the hell; lots of excellent theater has the same problem.
The 10 cast members (plus four "facilitators" from the Webster Conservatory) are individually and collectively wonderful and consistently work at the high "Oh, wow!" level. Natalie Toro is a charming Serena, the duck-to-swan girl, and Tony Capone partners her well as Prince Drake. Jonathan Brody, Bobby Daye, Angela Pupello and J.B. Wing sing and dance up storm after storm. But a tall, lanky singer/dancer/actor, Mark Chmiel, really sparkplugs the whole evening. Whether kinging, queening or swanning, whether dancing with marvelous grace or impossible faux klutziness, Chmiel dominates the stage like a reborn Danny Kaye, possessed of body language so witty and subtle that he seems able to dim or raise the lights with a foot turned in or out. Linda Goodrich's choreography somehow enlarges the main stage of the Loretto-Hilton and turns a troupe of 10 into the entire Hubbard Street corps, with steps from Petipa to Fosse to keep things interesting.
Everything's Ducky is a new show, and the Rep earns considerable respect simply for participating so significantly in its development. The show is too small to replace Cats (and, frankly, too good as well), and making it bigger with splashier sets, larger orchestra, more dancers and so on would improve it the way cola improves cognac. Although regional theaters are participating more and more in the development of Broadway musicals, their real contribution will continue to be in the area of smaller, more serious theatrical art and artistry, where Everything's Ducky, however lighthearted and impertinent, obviously belongs.