Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s ‘Ugly Duckling’ revamp promises to entertain and inspire
Anyone who has ever felt left out, or survived high school for that matter, will appreciate Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s holiday show, “Honk!” The charming and heartfelt production is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale, “The Ugly Duckling.”
“Essentially it’s a great allegory for bullying,” says actress Megan Smith, who stars as Ida, the duckling’s mother. “Being a person who is different from the dominant culture, how it affects your home and social life, and how to deal with that.”
The musical, which runs Nov. 16-Dec. 9 at UC Santa Cruz’s Mainstage Theater, tells the story of Ugly, an odd-looking duckling who was cast out at birth because of his appearance, and his journey to find love and acceptance.
Directed by Nancy Carlin, with music by George Stiles and text by Anthony Drewe, “Honk!” is a co-production of the UCSC Theater Arts Department and Shakespeare Santa Cruz. It will star many UCSC students alongside specialized actors, including Smith, who is a professional actress and musician based in the Bay Area.
The musical is the latest in a long line of non-Shakespearean holiday productions put on by SSC since 1997.
“Part of our mission at SSC is education, and the annual holiday show plays a big part in that—especially the special weekday matinées we perform for school groups,” explains Kyle Clausen, managing director of SSC. “They include an opportunity for a backstage tour and [for kids to pose] questions to the artists. For many of the over 2,000 children that will attend one of these matinées, it is their first exposure to live theater.”
The biggest difference between “The Ugly Duckling” and “Honk!” is the musical element. SSC’s adaptation is filled with rollicking song and dance numbers performed with the accompaniment of a live onstage band.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself as a performer being able to push myself in all of those directions of dance, song, and acting,” says Smith. “I think everyone in the cast would probably say the same thing; it’s great to be challenged to do all three of those things well for the purpose of telling a story.”
Smith has had plenty of practice telling stories through music, as one half of the popular acoustic Americana folk duo Misner and Smith. As actors, both Sam Misner and Smith work to integrate their passion for theater and music. The pair addresses the universality of storytelling in their songwriting and uses the vibrancy of each song to bring the action on stage to life.
“We believe in the music we’re making just as much if not more than we believe in theater. It’s the same artistic vision,” explains Smith. “I think what sets us apart is our live performance and our attention to detail, and the feeling of this openness with what we are performing that really draws people in.”
With a cast comprised predominantly of students—18 on stage, and more than 30 working behind the scenes—“Honk!” has given UCSC Theater Department students a chance to engage in a dialogue with and work alongside professional union actors. “This is a class for them, and an important part of their education as they apply skills learned in the classroom to this professional setting,” notes Clausen.
Smith’s role in the show and as a mentor to students has made her a mother hen in more ways than one. “It’s funny, I expected to be working with student actors who were very unseasoned and green—and they’re not,” says Smith. “They’re really professional, they come focused to work and that hard work makes it possible for me to do my work well.”
“Honk!” may seem like an odd choice for a holiday production, but the themes presented—namely tolerance, compassion and understanding—are an excellent reminder of the true meaning of the season.
“This story is about the power of love and family and overcoming steep odds,” says Smith. “I think it’s important to highlight those things when a lot of people are really distracted by material wants [and] getting swept up in the craziness of the holiday shopping season—this has nothing to do with that.
“There are those cheesy moments—because it’s a musical—people break into song and we’re all dressed up as birds, and it’s silly,” Smith continues, with a laugh, “but at the end of the day, the play has a heart to it that is undeniable.”
“Honk!” runs Nov. 16-Dec. 9 at UCSC’s Mainstage Theater, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $18-30. Visit shakespearesantacruz.org or call 459-2159.