In its 80 minutes, the razzle-dazzle singing-animal musical Lucky Duck struts from barnyard to catwalk and from pleasure to pleasure. Over a series of witty, crisply choreographed production numbers, Jennie Greenberry (playing Serena, the title quacker) blossoms from wretched stray to supermodel swan, a transformation that plays like a waterfowl American Idol in a faraway fairy-tale land.
Half of the show melds the familiar "Ugly Duckling" story with any number of films in which girls achieve acceptance with a just-in-time makeover. The other half is a quick-moving parody of bedtime-story convention, featuring kingly contests, palace intrigue and a horny duck prince (Seth Golay) who brings the house down with statements like "Would that I had knees so that I could fall down upon them and weep."
The tuneful, pop-soul songs, from Dreamgirls composer Henry Krieger and Side Show lyricist Bill Russell, make for state-of-the-art musical theater and are calibrated for applause (and earn it time and again). Katie Karel and Izzie Baldwin, in sun-yellow gowns fluffed out like parade floats, make for riotous golden chicks in the wicked stepsister mode. Tim Scott prowls about as a pinstriped wolf, insisting that he's above that whole big, bad thing — a pleasure of special note because Scott plays rapaciousness with invention and a towering spirit. He's matched only by Georgianna Buchanan's costumes, which earn their own laughs.
In short, this fleet musical is choice, bright fun, and another triumph for the Coterie's Lab for New Family Musicals and for Jeff Church, the Coterie's artistic director. (He's also responsible in recent years for saving Seussical and premiering a host of strong shows from pedigreed artists.)
That said, the show would have benefited from a little more lab time. This kid-friendly Lucky Duck has been pared down from a longer show targeted at grown-ups. It strains under too much plot in its shortened version, but that compromises enjoyment only near the end, when Bill Russell and Jeffrey Hatcher's book twists and twists and then twists again, going all crazy-straw just when the climax should be tugging us ahead with clarity and force.
The other problem is that, because it hustles through so many third-act complications so fast, time is lost that might have been better invested in the ugly duck's fate. "Average, Simple Mega Superstar," Serena's big number, is memorable for its witty blues-club feel, but neither song nor show develops Serena beyond two simple traits: her desire for stardom and her suffering at the remarks of her stepsisters. Greenberry does strong work in the role, but she's given too little opportunity to demonstrate Serena's inner life. Her transformation to a gorgeous swan is never rooted in some admirable component of Serena's personality. It is instead conferred upon her just for showing up, in the form of a makeover.
But enough carping. Lucky Duck is the summer's only fresh musical, silly but smart and catchy, and steeped in Broadway history. It's great fun and the most exciting musical to hit Kansas City since Venice.
Because it's a Coterie show, Lucky Duck plays mornings and afternoons (and 7 p.m. Fridays), which means cast members such as Sam Cordes (who plays a terrified lamb and a cocky rooster) can moonlight. Cordes also turns up in the Living Room's revival of Eric Bogosian's Talk Radio, a few blocks' dash from Crown Center. In that show, he plays Kent, a punk who's too numb and dumb to understand that punks are supposed to be pissed off about things. Kent is just bored, a suburban naif given to bursts of showy aggression. In Cordes' smart characterization, he's lamb and rooster all at once.
Kent is a devoted listener to the ferocious radio talk-show host Barry Champlain, a man who's pissed off about everything. (Bryan Moses is prickly and persuasive in the role.) That's Barry's job: to get listeners as pissed as he is. But like many media bullshitters, Barry comes to mistake his put-on ravings for something greater than entertainment. He carries on about the CIA, about "pornographic America," about how a woman caller's dog will probably die, confident that such entertaining bluster somehow illustrates a vital truth. It's only when he meets Kent, his addlebrained fan, that Barry comprehends the disconnect.
Then his rage becomes real.
Talk Radio follows one too-eventful evening of Barry's show. Callers (well played by Cordes, David Wayne Reed, Kimberly Queen and others) report overdoses, suffer on-air breakdowns and threaten Barry's life. Kent drops by and breaks some FCC rules. Barry's assistant and girlfriend (Katie Gilchrist) demands an accounting of their relationship. His station manager announces that the show will be picked up nationally the following week if this night's show is "hot."
By the end, when 90 minutes of talk radio have stripped Barry of everything he might have believed in, most of the station's staff members have stormed off — hardly what career radio types would do on the verge of a syndication bonanza. Moses blazes through the first two-thirds of the play, but his Barry collapses from cocksure to broken without showing us the intervals between. The show (directed by Rusty Sneary) amuses and upsets as it should, often at the same time, but a nagging conceptual problem remains: Talk radio is miserable and exhausting, and Bogosian's script is too often the same.