By George Basler
Twenty years ago, Broome County puppeteer Robert Rogers heard the CD soundtrack of a musical from England call Honk! and was inspired by its songs and story.
He was not alone. The musical — with music by George Stiles and book and lyrics by Anthony Drewe — won the 2000 Laurence Olivier Award (the British equivalent of the Tony Awards) for best new musical, beating out nominees that included The Lion King.
Since then, the show has been performed around the world in some 8,000 productions from regional theaters to elementary schools, Rogers said.
But, until now, he is not aware of any production that featured puppets instead of live actors. That will change over the next two weekends when the musical, featuring 27 large marionettes built by Rogers, will be performed by SRO Productions III at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage’s ReSTART Tent, 48 Willow St., Johnson City.
Honk! is an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Ugly Duckling.” SRO’s production is a one-hour version of the show, Honk Jr.!, that is designed for younger audiences. But the production will appeal to adults, as well as children, Rogers emphasized. He compared it to other “family friendly” musicals, such as The Lion King.
“The show has been updated and expanded. It is much more than a fairy tale,” Rogers said, noting it tackles such contemporary issues as inclusion, prejudice and pride in oneself.
The SRO production has had a long gestation period. Rogers said he first worked on his concept 20 years ago but found it beyond his means at the time. He reluctantly shelved it and moved on to other projects.
“I had once presented the concept to Naima Kradjian (executive director of the Goodwill Theatre), but the timing was not right. Last August, faced with the COVID dilemma, and determined to stage a safe, socially distanced show, she decided to greenlight the project for a debut in the spring of 2021,” Rogers said.
Scott Fisher, an SRO veteran, is directing the production. Eleven actors will bring the marionettes, or string puppets, to life after having spent many weeks learning to manipulate the creations, Rogers said, adding that they all rose to the to the occasion.
The music for Honk Jr.! is wide ranging, and the story is “very heartfelt” and “very funny,” Rogers said, adding, “The result has been better than I imagined. We have created quite a spectacle.”
IF YOU GO: Performances are 7:30 p.m. Fridays (June 4 and 11), 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays (June 5 and 12) and 2 p.m. Sundays (June 6 and 13). Tickets at $15 ($10 for students and seniors) must be purchased in advance.
The box office of the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage is located on the second floor of 67 Broad St., Johnson City. Business hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Call 772-2404, ext. 301. Tickets also can be purchased at www.firehousestage.org.
COVID-19 protocols are in effect.