Going home to Boston and seeing the relatives for Christmas can be a daunting task, but something good came out of it this year: a trip to the Boston Children's Theatre, where I saw one of the best musicals of the '90s, Honk! Years ago, when I was told that composer George Stiles and librettist-lyricist Anthony Drewe were writing a new musical version of "The Ugly Duckling," I--like so many others--rolled my eyes heavenward. Frank Loesser had told the whole story so beautifully in one of his Hans Christian Andersen songs, so who needed a whole musical of the story? And when you factor in all the children's theater musicals that are based on Andersen's tale, hadn't the whole thing been done to death?

In fact, yes. But Stiles and Drewe beautifully resuscitated the artistically dead duck by getting into the heart and soul of "Ugly," the duckling who wasn't. Their song "Different" turned out to have a great many reaffirmations for those of us who have felt different because of our size, shape, color, religion, or sexuality. Honk! also fits the mission statement of this company, which has for decades insisted that performers come from every neighborhood, cultural background, and socioeconomic group. All they ask is that the kids be in grades 4 to 12. Honk! is a wonderful show for children and I'm delighted that the Boston Children's Theatre took it on--though, for a while there, director Patricia Gleeson must have worried that she wouldn't be able to do it. The show requires a cast of 16, and only 22 youngsters came to audition. "We usually have more than 80 kids audition for one of our shows," said Gleeson, "but we held tryouts shortly after September 11, when so many parents didn't want their kids anywhere near downtown." Indeed, the troupe uses a theater that's only a stone's throw from Logan Airport, whence two of those ill-fated planes left on that dark Tuesday morning.

That the cast turned out to be so excellent under these slim-pickin's circumstances may surprise some, but not me. Those 22 kids who were going to audition no matter what must have desperately wanted to be in a show, and that dedication was demonstrated in their performances. I'd estimate that I've seen well over 300 shows done by young people, but I honestly believe that I've never seen a cast so well rehearsed as this one. Gleeson delivered a slick production that would be envied by many Broadway directors. None of the kids (not one!) ever came close to missing a cue. All were ready, willing, and more than able, when the time, came to deliver a line or a gesture. Their characterizations were all right on the money, too, even though they weren't getting any money--once again proving that the definition of "professional" can't be restricted to being paid for one's services but must also include how a person conducts himself on a stage.

Using that standard, these kids were certainly professional. They passed my acid test for every children's production: When they're on stage but aren't the focus of the scene, do they stay in character? Indeed, they all did. True, each and every one of them could profit from taking voice lessons...but I loved them, warts and all. And that's what it's all about, isn't it, this Honk!? As always happens at a children's theater show, I had tears in my eyes, which always prompts someone at intermission to ask me: "Which one is yours?" They assume I must be a parent with a kid in the show. And, as always, I answered: "All of them."

The Boston Children's Theatre started having little guys and dolls performing right around the time Guys and Dolls opened on Broadway, in 1950. How many other performing organizations are now in their sixth decade? And where do you think Julie Taymor got her start? Right here, as one of Cinderella's wicked stepsisters. That experience couldn't have hurt her when she was developing another family-crisis drama called The Lion King. Will Ashley Gorsline, who played a deliciously evil Cat, be the next Taymor? Or will Christine Chilingerian, who did double duty as a good friend and a good chicken, someday do double duty as a noted director-choreographer? As they say in La Cage aux Folles: Who knows? Who knows? Who knows? But they certainly were exquisite in their roles here. So was Branigan LaCount as Ugly's mother, showing a maternal quality and a maturity that went well beyond her 14 years. She was so prepossessing, I immediately saw her as the British, Russian, German, and American women who encounter Littlechap in Stop the World--I Want to Get Off. I won't be surprised if she gets to do that show someday...and, if she does, I want to be there. I was also astonished at the dance moves of Jacqueline Ryan. No kid who's only 13 could be expected to do such a spirited tango, but this kid could.

As much as I loved the show, it's what happened after the performance that brought even more tears to my eyes. As Michael DeFillipi, who'd been a dandy Drake, was leaving the theater, he was singing "A Little Priest" from Sweeney Todd. Then a number of other cast members joined in and sing it with him. Needless to say, this is not a mere moon-June-spoon-croon lyric, and the fact that so many kids knew word-for-word a song from a musical more than 20 years old was thrilling to me. A few minutes later, Branigan LaCount's mother was ready to leave, but the kid didn't want to abandon her friend Jacqueline Ryan. When the mother insisted, Branigan said in a mock-hurt voice, "But we can't split up! We're Siamese twins!" This prompted the mother to say, "Then get yourselves into a production of Side Show." Wouldn't you have loved to have a mother who knew a Broadway cult classic? I'd say Branigan LaCount is being brought up very well, indeed.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]