Once upon a time, there were disgruntled parents who were bored with their children's mindless entertainment. Whatever were they to do? How could they enrich their children's lives with the wonders of live theater without becoming grumpy, sleepy, or dopey? The answer: the toe-tapping, fluffy Lucky Duck at the New Victory Theater, which goes far beyond most children's shows to be, as the title character puts it, "an average simple mega superstar."
Like most children's theater shows, Lucky Duck uses a story familiar to kids: the ugly duckling mixed with a bit of Cinderella. This time, however, there are added plot twists and turns and some cheeky fun. Serena (Jennie Greenberry, who belts to the balcony and has a commanding presence) leaves behind her fair-feathered family of two sisters (Katie Karel and Emily Shackelford) and mommy Mallard (Julie Shaw) and exits the barnyard to enter the king's singing contest and win the prince's attention. In the forest, she meets the wolf (Tim Scott, who is equal parts conniving and charismatic, like a furry used car salesman), who just happens to be a talent agent and sends her to New Duck City to make her dreams come true. The rest of the story involves fashion models, jail-breaks, and even a bird-versus-carnivore agenda in a series of complicated plot twists to get to the happily-ever-after ending.
The show certainly isn't watered down like some children's shows; instead, it is quite complex and surprisingly enjoyable for both children and adults. Children will appreciate the cartoonish sets (Ryan J. Zirngibl) and animal-inspired costumes (Georgianna Buchanan), but the parents will truly appreciate the details, like the proscenium made from egg cartons. In particular Ms. Buchanan's costumes are perfect: actors never wear masks but instead wear everyday clothing that brings to mind their animal roles, such as frilly yellow gingham dresses and orange stockings for the ducklings. Similarly, lyricist Bill Russell and composer Henry Krieger (the team behind Broadway's Side Show), manage to elevate bouncy, fluffy songs into show-stopping numbers that keep the attention of both kids and parents, especially the opener "That's One Ugly Duck" and Serena's "Average Simple Mega Superstar." Meanwhile, Russell and book-writing partner Jeffrey Hatcher take a predictable story and add plot twists and jokes that soar over the kids' heads but make parents chuckle.
As a downside, many of these jokes aimed at the adults in the audience cause some confusion for kids, and they shed light on the imperfections of this fairy tale (and most others). A plot point about the carnivores' oppression at the hands (wings?) of the birds calls for one character to claim that another is "specist," at which one inquisitive small child loudly asked, "What does specist mean?" Most of the puns, pop culture references and mild adult humor are fine and good, and give the show a "Shrek"-like feel, but focusing on complex themes like discrimination in a show aimed at children ages four to eight seems a bit too far. Beyond that, Serena is scorned until she is transformed into a beautiful supermodel, reinforcing society's pressure on women and girls to value their looks more than their brains, talents, or unique qualities. True, in the end, Serena's voice is showcased and the power of love is emphasized, but in a show that has such snappy humor, I expected the creators to come up with ways to celebrate Serena as an individual.
Lucky Duck boasts a talented ensemble and entertaining numbers, and it certainly celebrates fairy tales and their whimsy. I hate to be too critical of a revamped fun and fluffy farmyard fairy tale, but I guess I wanted more than just that simple age-old happily ever after. Now that would've been a real "mega superstar" of a show.