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Tug of heartstrings in 'Honk!'

Theatre Horizon's take on "Ugly Duckling" is a stylized, musical tale of adversity and strength.

It's a big week for Hans Christian Andersen in the Philadelphia area.

Theatre Horizon's Honk!, a musical take on Andersen's 1843 children's story The Ugly Duckling, dovetails with Robert LePage's The Andersen Project, a very loose take on Andersen's lesser-known children's story The Dryad.

Where LePage embraced the adult underpinnings of Andersen's themes, Honk!, written by Anthony Drew with music by George Styles, is family-friendly, though director Matthew Decker embraces the complexities of this barnyard's singing residents.

Decker is amply assisted by Michael Doherty as Ugly, the cygnet raised by mallards. It might sound silly to get wrapped up in the psychological trials of a fairy-tale character, but it's unavoidable - with Honk!'s dedication to the mother-son bond, its allegorical depiction of child abduction (children will have an entirely different experience from their parents watching Alex Bechtel's unctuous Cat sing "Play With Your Food" when he finally gets Ugly alone), and the contemporary parallels between bullied waterfowl and bullied children.

Ugly is a simpler, musical, G-rated take on Doherty's role this season as Warren in Theatre Revolution's production of This Is Our Youth. In both cases, he took a hapless but irrepressible mess of a kid and made his vulnerability palpable.

Of course, Ugly isn't alone out there, and Deirdre Finnegan, as his unflagging mother Ida, tugs the finely tuned heartstrings of every mom who has stuck up for her child when the world got too rough.

Honk! isn't all heavy psycho-social commentary. In fact, it's rather cute. Styled like a living Little Golden Book, Hallie Keyser's costumes pay homage to the Fifties with perky, aproned, and crinolined ladies, er, birds, and a dad (Joe Mallon's Drake) clad in Bermuda shorts and bowling shirt. Adam Riggar embraces the theme with a simple, bright set and projections that seem lifted from the story's clear, line-drawn pages.

Honk! stretches the vocal capabilities of some of its supporting cast - primarily Finnegan and Ben Camp in three roles - but Erin Reilly, Kate McLenigan Altman, and Rachel Camp, plus a quartet of children, chirp happily as a multitude of critters (backed by a chipper musical trio).

The real beauty of Honk! - and Andersen's source material - is its universal adaptability. Viewed through LePage's adult narrative or Theatre Horizon's picture-book lens, the message that adversity begets strength resonates with audiences large and small.


Playing at: Centre Theatre, 208 DeKalb St., Norristown. Through Sunday, July 2. A performance June 18 is reserved for families of special-needs children. Tickets: $15 to $24.

Information: 610-283-2230