Poultry in Motion is the name of a strip club that appears in “Lucky Duck,” a farcical musicalization of “The Ugly Duckling.” This phrase accurately describes the fast-moving, moderately funny but disjointed interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic. First staged in 2000 at Palo Alto’s Theatreworks under the title “Everything’s Ducky,” the revised version at the Old Globe sets up clever, zany situations and then wanders completely off course in the slapdash second act. A superior cast and deft direction by Tony winner John Rando (“Urinetown”) never quite disguise the fact that this show is slender, feathery fluff.
“Lucky Duck” is launched with great visual promise by Rob Odorisio, supplementing the action with a floor to ceiling purple backdrop featuring huge cutouts of different sized eggs. But this beautiful barnyard reverberates with sadness, because heroine Serena (Marcy Harriell) is defined in song as “one ugly duck” and told by her malicious mother, Mrs. Mallard (Mary Beth Peil), that “she looks like a piece of gum with hair on it.” When a singing competition is announced, Serena’s silly sisters, Mildred (J. Elaine Marcos) and Millicent (J.B. Wing), anxious to win the grand prize — a date with Prince Drake (J. Robert Spencer) — ridicule Serena’s singing aspirations, and she makes up her mind to compete.
The story reaches its strongest peak when Serena runs away from her “fowl” environment and meets Wolf (David McDonald), a former carnivore turned vegan who spots her star quality. Their early relationship is well written by Bill Russell and Jeffrey Thatcher, and McDonald’s warmly affectionate, slyly humorous portrayal gives the show a strong foundation. His duet with the appealing Harriell, “Too Bad You’re Not My Type,” and rendition of “A Helping Paw” are high spots. So much chemistry is established that our visceral emotional response is hope that she winds up with him in the end.
Since the Serena-Wolf tie is so vibrantly drawn, everything disintegrates when his early animal nature reasserts itself and he craves Serena more as a meal than a friend. The switch isn’t properly prepared for and comes glaringly across as a plot device. Equally trumped up is Serena’s decision not to sing after her beautiful vocal kills the king (Stephen DeRosa). Serena’s romance with self-centered Prince Drake has bright moments (notably their ballad “In a Bind”), but all coherence vanishes in a maze of cluttered complications.
As an Ugly Duckling who becomes a swan, Harriell possesses the golden voice to justify the acclaim she finally receives. Russell’s lyrics are generally witty, but Henry Krieger’s melodies, despite rhythmic energy, lack specific personality and don’t give Harriell the knockout numbers she deserves. Fortunately, her vivacious renditions are always enjoyable, and she wins us over with “Average, Simple, Mega Superstar.”
Those aware of Peil only as serious, religious Grams on “Dawson’s Creek” will be delighted by her handling of four roles. Gregg Barnes’ costumes are lush and uniformly creative, and Peil — wearing elaborate outfits filled with patchwork designs and lacy ruffles — carries them off in style. She also transforms the cornier dialogue with idiosyncratic speech and facial expressions.
Spencer sings solidly as the Prince, lending conviction to his shift from shallowness to steadfast devotion. Only DeRosa is driven by his five broadly written roles to overplay.
As a showcase for actors, all of whom (except Harriell) tackle multiple parts (nine performers, 32 roles), “Lucky Duck” offers intermittently beguiling entertainment. But even in this redone form, it lays too many eggs, leaving numerous script and character contrivances that still need to be unscrambled.