Cheryl Freeman and Nikki M. James
in Walmartopia the Musical!
(© Carol Rosegg)
Cheryl Freeman and Nikki M. James
in Walmartopia the Musical!
(© Carol Rosegg)
When Walmartopia played the 2006 New York International Fringe Festival, it acquired quite a buzz despite its being an amateurish attempt to put Sam Walton's gargantuan merchandising empire in its place. Now, the musical has resurfaced at Off-Broadway's Minetta Lane Theatre, and though the tuner has been entirely recast and given an expansive if ultimately static David Korins set, there's been no qualitative improvement. It's still an amateurish lapse.

The plot involves Madison, Wisconsin-based Vicki Latrell (Cheryl Freeman) and daughter Maia (Nikki M. James), who decide -- Vicki more slowly than Maia -- to fight the despised company's anti-union stance. Their goal is to obtain a combined wage that'll finally get them out of a hotel and into a home of their own. For their efforts, they get tossed into a time machine by company moguls and end up thirty years in the future where America is a Wal-Mart-ruled nation. (Only Vermont is autonomous.) In this robotic environment, the duo is dispatched to an arts unit where they seize an opportunity to join a rebel faction led by an insubordinate called Zeb (Bradley Dean). The result? The proceedings are too incomprehensible to say.

The only other thing to know about the mish-mash activity -- if there is anything worth knowing -- is that Walton, who died in 1992, is a character. Sort of. His head (Scotty Watson) sometimes appears atop a large silver box and sometimes on a monitor. It dictates Walton's demands to cowering underlings.

In the interest of fair play, it should be noted that both Freeman and James survive this expensive mistake by dint of their sincerity and powerful lungs. They're especially potent in a second act duet called "What Kind of Mother?" It's a case of two talented performers taking a second-rate piece of material and fooling patrons into thinking what they're hearing is first-rate. The brooding Dean, as a different ill-served employee in both acts, has a tenor leavened with swoon ingredients.

Nothing else in Walmartopia calls for serious consideration. The book, music and lyrics are by husband-wife team Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn, who don't seem to be collaborating so much as engaging in a folie a deux. In a song called "March of the Executives" -- delivered by most of the cast in slick black wigs and astride chairs on casters -- the humor sinks to this level: "What sets us apart?/We're big!/We're really big!/We're really really really really really really really big!"

The director, Daniel Goldstein, does little to ameliorate matters. As for choreographer Wendy Seyb, it's hard to tell whether she's not good or whether she just can't get an ensemble noticeably short on dancing talent to meet her needs. There's no reason to embarrass the others in the cast by mentioning their names, except to say you know a show has real problems when extraordinary farceur Stephen DeRosa plays a number of roles and looks the wrong kind of foolish in every one.

Wal-Mart's deplorable tactics and infringements -- much exposed in the press -- are enough to explain anyone's desire to put the institution's manipulators in their place. Walmartopia isn't the way to do it, however. Bad art never helped anyone's cause.

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For TheaterMania's video preview of Walmartopia, click here.