'Duck Commander Musical': Theater Review
'Duck Dynasty' takes a musical bow in Las Vegas, giving fans of the A&E show all they can ask for, which evidently isn't much.
You don’t have to be a barber to love Sweeney Todd, or a nun to enjoy The Sound of Music. But it probably helps to be a — pardon the term — redneck to endure the 90 months, er minutes, of Duck Commander Musical, a love letter to simple folk with a penchant for guns, God and facial hair. What might have been a campy and hilarious look at some good ole boys who hit it big turns out to be a paean to religion and family. With fart jokes.
As the curtain goes up on “Faith, Food and Family,” the Robertsons (that’s Willie, Phil, Jase, Si, Kay, Korie and Jep, for those who harbor no ill will toward ducks) venerate the three cornerstones of their existence. It’s a simple triumvirate until exposed to scrutiny. Which faith? Are the Robertsons multi-denominational? Which foods? Bean sprouts or deep-fried butter sticks? As for family, it can get complicated when dad compares homosexuality to bestiality.
Of course, these are all the wrong questions. The specifics are hardly the point. The point is a rollicking good time that appeals to people like the Robertsons, who believe the drive for fame and fortune is a virtue unto itself. The thing is, specifics matter in any creative endeavor, no matter how broad its tone. Without them, instead of watching a family triumph over adversity, we’re watching five guys from the land that Gillette forgot frolic with enough blonde women to form their own Fox News team.
Actor-turned-writer Asa Somers dooms Duck Commander Musical with one-liners that land with the grace of a bird shot out of the sky. The narrative simply follows the family, led by Willie (Ben Thompson) and Korie (Ginna Claire Mason), as they make a better duck call, cut a deal with Walmart, and make promotional videos that catapult them into basic-cable stardom. If you reached the end of that last sentence, then you’ve just seen the show, minus those fart jokes and some saccharine songs. “With the good Lord by our side, we’ll take Duck Commander worldwide,” they sing, as if God were craving more dead ducks.
As the show would have it, the Robertsons met few obstacles in their pursuit of fame and fortune, which makes for an easy life, but uninteresting drama. Antagonists (if there are any) remain offstage in the form of the "PC, golf-playing, good ole liberal yuppies" from Hollywood. But why the resentment if they’re the ones who made the Robertsons rich? Because as Robertson patriarch Phil (Tad Wilson) would no doubt say, it wasn’t Hollywood, it was hard work and God’s good grace that got them where they are.
Conflict finally arrives when Phil is asked by a reporter about Leviticus. In real life, it was a reporter from GQ Magazine who asked, “What, in your mind, is sinful?” Robertson’s outrageous comments in the January 2014 issue are never quoted in the show. All we’re told is that Phil was just being Phil, and that he loves all people equally. And, in order to win our sympathy, we are presented with a flashback wherein he finds solace at the bottom of a bottle. Ornery and itching to fight, he then discovers scripture, meets and marries Miss Kay (Mimi Bessette), and chooses a righteous path.
In reaction to Phil’s homophobic outburst (which Duck Commander assiduously avoids characterizing as such), Willie decides his father should take a hiatus from the show. But moments later, the clan is reminded of their triple-F mantra, Faith, Food and Family, and Phil is allowed back. “We’re more than meets the eye and we won’t apologize,” they sing in a moment that’s heartbreaking, not because it brims with familial love, but because the only whiff of conflict that could possibly make this musical engaging is overlooked.
Less egregious than the absence of conflict is Somers' failure to flesh out the characters, given that the core audience knows them from TV. (Amusing video interstitials feature the real-life figures commenting on the musical from the audience.) But the libretto feels like it was hastily penned on the back of a Vegas cocktail napkin.
As Uncle Si, Jesse Lenat gets most of the evening’s laughs, mixing up OB-GYN with OMG, or proclaiming, "Haters got to hate, potatoes got to potate." He gets his own song, a disco dance piece with lyrics like, “When I walk into a room with this body, I can hear all the ladies say, what a hottie.” The songs by Robert and Steve Morris (with an assist by Joe Shane) are the show’s second-biggest liability. Country, gospel, disco and pop blend together to form a bland score that lacks either clever lyrics or memorable melodies.
Fresh off the success of Newsies, director Jeff Calhoun phones this one in, leaving most of his performers standing around while the principals deliver their lines. He employs little to no choreography, except for the big finale, which incorporates a few classic moves from the 1930s, with the cast in camouflage top hat and tails courtesy of designer Tobin Ost.
As Miss Kay, Bessette is the brightest spot in the show, overcoming thin characterization and forgettable songs with her gorgeous mezzo-soprano. She single-handedly renders listenable tunes like “Cooking for the Family,” in which the kitchen is overrun by blonde women in a number reminiscent of The Lawrence Welk Show, circa 1955.
As Willie, Thompson is a likable presence, though he struggles to stay on key in several of his duets with Mason. She gives it her all as Korie, though fails to distinguish her character from all the other bottle blondes. Like the rest of the cast, Mason is trapped in a terrible show. But the audience, the majority of them seemingly Duck Dynasty fans, appears untroubled by the production's shortcomings. Which just goes to show that sometimes cat food tastes like duck pate, but only if you’ve never had duck pate.
Cast: Ben Thompson, Ginna Claire Mason, Tad Wilson, Mimi Bessette, Jesse Lenat, Mary Little, Tommy McDowell, Matt Stokes, Haley Swindal, Josh Tolle
Director: Jeff Calhoun
Book: Asa Somers
Music and lyrics: Robert Morris, Steven Morris and Joe Shane
Set and costume designer: Tobin Ost
Lighting designer: Michael Gilliam
Sound designer: John Trace
Presented by Tommy Mottola, The Dodgers, Ollawood Productions