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Fine cast struts its stuff in ‘Lucky Duck’ in New York

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

First things first: This won’t be your typical theater review.

This will be an occasion to look back at where we’ve been and how far we’ve come. And by “we” I mean professional theater in Kansas City.

I saw the Coterie Theatre’s production of “Lucky Duck” in 2010 and was charmed as much by the material as by the fine comic performances that brought this musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” to life.

Now the Coterie, with its cast and production team largely intact, has brought the show to New York for a limited run at the New Victory Theater.

The show is just as good as it was in Kansas City, and the actors are even better.

Director Jeff Church and choreographer Ernie Nolan have restaged the piece for a conventional proscenium theater, and scenic designer Ryan J. Zirngibl has created sets that are simple enough to travel but which also bring a lighthearted visual sense of humor to the production.

This musical is the creation of composer Henry Krieger and lyricist Bill Russell, who co-wrote the book with Jeffrey Hatcher. It’s a very funny reinvention of the classic fairy tale about an ugly duckling who becomes a beautiful swan. They recast the story as a satire about a kingdom ruled by waterfowl who have subjugated the canine carnivores, whom they regulate closely and attempt to pacify with “soy-based poultry substitutes.”

The central character is Serena (Jennie Greenberry), the dorky step-sibling to the smug Mallard sisters (Katie Karel and Emily Shackelford), who hopes to compete in the kingdom’s songbird contest on KLUC radio.

Tired of the constant mockery she endures from the Mallard girls, she flees into the woods, where she is befriended by the renegade Wolf (Tim Scott). Wolf claims to be a theatrical agent with the connections to make her a star.

As I watched the opening night performance of this show, with many of its creators present and moms with kids on booster seats experiencing “Lucky Duck” for the first time, what struck me was how right it seemed for this show and these actors to be on a New York stage.

From Georgianna Buchanan’s beautifully crafted costumes to the assured performances, this production was a declaration that Kansas City theater artists can hold their own anywhere, including New York.

Greenberry is a thoroughly charming Serena, but the production is really anchored by Scott, whose honed timing, quickness and wit set the pace for his fellow actors. He gets every ounce of humor from the show’s amiably absurd jokes.

But polished performances are also registered by Seth Golay, as Drake, the prince with an obsession for models; Kip Niven, who is first seen as the King and who later appears as Armand, a French fashion photographer; Julie Shaw, who triples as Mrs. Mallard, the starmaker Goosetella and the Queen; Greg Krumins and Tosin Morohunfola, who hilariously double as the Free Range Chickens and a pair of hustling Coyotes; and Francisco “Pancho Javier” Villegas as radio host Rudy Rooster and other characters.

Shackelford and Karel are a riot as the Mallard sisters, and Karel makes a huge impression with her brief appearance as Chicken Little.

What the future holds for this show and the artists involved is an open question. But there was a time not so long ago when a production originating in Kansas City and traveling to New York was such a rare event that it was regarded as an aberration. Not so much these days. Now it seems part of a natural progression, the logical consequence for a theater community that has worked long and hard to get where it is.

To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to rtrussell@kcstar.com.

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