Consolidation of economic power is one of the natural processes of capitalism. And though we reap the benefits of technology, information and leisure, the cost is clear: unilateral policy-making and environmental degradation. To many people around the globe, this form of authoritarian monopoly is represented by Wal-Mart, which has been playing hopscotch with Exxon-Mobil as the world’s largest revenue-producing corporation. In “Mall-Mart, The Musical!” book writer Joan Holden and composer Bruce Barthol explore the history of this merchandising behemoth in song, dance and dialogue, with both serious and satirical intent.
Covering 1942 through 1962 and the humble, small-town Arkansas origins of the family that still owns 40% of the corporation, act one is a folksy run-up to the Brechtian second act, which focuses on current management strategy and tactics designed to increase international market share and earnings.
It’s easy to identify with the forces that drive go-getter Walt Samson (Brad Evans) toward retail domination. Samson was kept from the WWII front lines by a heart murmur and now has something to prove, while his wife, Ella (Jennifer Dunne) and brother Chuck (Michael Morgan) would be content keeping things local.
Evans and Dunne do their best to establish the initial blush of romance, but the first scene and opening number, “Small Town Life,” don’t provide much foundation for their emotional arc. A little more frisson here would allow a greater climax at the end of act one, when Ella and Chuck lose faith in Walt’s direction.
In act two, double-casting gives karmic overtones to a different set of characters, with Marcus Waterman, first seen as one of Walt’s early competition victims, now playing Howard Kraft, who heads up the global powerhouse. Waterman deftly keeps Kraft from becoming a caricature of corporate greed while getting his point across in a slick soft-shoe, “One World, One Market, One Store,” and in the denouement, where he rattles off statistical evidence of Mall-Mart’s domination.
After Walt passes over hard-working and ambitious assistant Verna Boggs (Megan Van De Hey) for store manager, she resurfaces as the cutthroat Lydia Sharper, Kraft’s agent provocateur. Van De Hay sells her numbers with gusto, especially the gutsy and gravelly “When a Woman Hits Fifty” and the Lola send-up, “The Road Not Taken.”
Chuck, who seems to have inherited all the family’s conscience genes, reappears as the conflicted Mayor who must decide whether to pave local marshland for a new megastore or tell the company that has underwritten his political career to take a hike. In both cases, Morgan sells us a good ol’ boy, happy with life’s simple pleasures.
Evans and Dunne return as Dexter and Harriet Pigeon, a working-class couple whose relationship parallels Walt and Ella’s, on the other end of the socio-economic scale: He’s a shopaholic and she’s got a life. However, act two’s agit-prop feel keeps their story from being meaningful.
While Holden and Barthol have captured the gist of the issues surrounding the behavior and influence of Public Corporation No. 1, some script doctoring that shows instead of tells would help up the dramatic stakes. For example, a speech concerning Walt’s business savvy could have occurred in the story’s retail context, rather than in limbo as a testimonial, and some of the ensemble’s “Labor” anthems are heavy-handed. A good laugh would make the message go down easier.
The ensemble does well with a slew of characterizations, though as a chorus they could have used some stronger voices. This is a.d. Chip Walton’s first musical in Curious Theater Company’s nine years. At times, the choreography lacks vigor and the three-piece band muddies an alternately jazzy and atmospheric score while often drowning out the unamplified talent. Despite its shortcomings, though, “Mall-Mart” has the underpinnings of solid musical, and its message about the consequences of over-consumption is certainly a needed one.