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A CurtainUp Review

We are one under Wal-Mart
Wal-Mart feeds us all
We were born to consume
Never may you fall
— Opening stanza of the cheer song for the employees of Walmartopia in the year 2037.
Cheryl Freeman and Nikki M. James are mother/daughter in Walmartopia
( Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Walmartopia opens brightly in the present time and with an appropriately threatening message sung by smiley-faced employees: ". . . I know you'll learn to love me, If you know what's good for you. " This is a bitter pill of a musical, an aggressively militant satire that attacks corporatism (the new code word for fascism), economic and social dependency on the state, and the very real and present dangers of reckless and uncontrolled consumerism.

Whew! That's enough to send Bertolt Brecht spinning in his grave. Sadly, I don't think this well-intentioned musical has enough of what it takes to stir up the living.

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Vicki Latrell (Cheryl Freeman), a single mom with a teenaged daughter, has a steady job at the Madison, Wisconsin Walmartopia. But after five years with the retailing merchandise giant she is still only a team leader in women's clothing. Her daughter Maia (Nikki M. James) is also an employee. Together they can barely make ends meet at their poverty level wages. When Vicki realizes that despite her loyalty and efficiency there is little hope for advancement in position or pay, she attempts to fight back with the support of Miguel (Bradley Dean), a janitor and undercover Union organizer. When Miguel is outed and ousted, Vicki and Maia decide to stay the course and bring their grievances to the head honchos.

They are selected by Darin (Brennen Leath), a duplicitous and lecherous department manager, to be included in a musical revue performed by the Walmartopia saleswomen for the corporate head and shareholders. The revue is an attempt by the executives to quell a sex discrimination suit involving two million angry women employees. Speaking up on behalf of the workers after the show turns out to be a mistake. Vicki and Maia are detained by the executives and Dr. Normal (Stephen DeRosa), a mad scientist/director of research (think Martin Short on speed), who pushes them into a time machine that would make H.G. Wells wince. They are propelled thirty years into the future and to their horror discover that every state, except Vermont, has been completely taken over by Walmartopia. People who complain or rebel are brain-washed in the Orwellian manner.

What can Vicki and Maia do to stop an armed invasion of Vermont by Walmartopia-trained forces bringing "freedom? " The Vermonters are called "terrorists." Far be it from me to spoil the rest for you.

I suspect that few musical shows since the mid-1930s and the days of the Federal Theater's Living Newspaper revues have been as brazenly forthright in naming names, or as ferociously committed to the skewering of their target (let's forget Forbidden Broadway). In some ways like Brecht and Weill's fabulist anti-capitalist opera City of Mahoganny, Walmartopia has the temerity to resist being likeable, a trait that isn't easy to accept despite the "smiley" faces that the employees of Wal-Mart are required to wear as they warn us in a song with yet another ominous undertone "We're Commin' to Your Town. "

Catharine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn, the married-to-each-other collaborators on the book, music and lyrics, have made sure that the corporate giant (ogre?) Walmartopia takes it squarely on the chin and unflinchingly in the groin in their highly politicized musical. Apparently audiences at the 2006 Fringe Festival turned the tuner into a must-see event. Now the 40-minute Fringe show has been stretched into two hours, though it's still not enriched or embedded with sardonic wit. Yet Capellaro and Rohn's sincerely invested intentions are not easy to shrug off and it's almost impossible not to be a little unnerved by this almost schizophrenic musical that delivers its well-meaning message through deliberately one-dimension characters; bouncy, if unmemorable songs; and a curious mixture of farcical and facetious performances. Though directed with an obvious relish for the material by Daniel Goldstein, Walmartopia but it ends up being neither cute or disarming, and vindicated (in part) only t by its earnest and real sense of urgency.

The show's gregarious display of workers in revolt and a greedy self-serving management in and out of control will either have you sit stone-faced or succumb to nervous laughter. Unlike the more fantastical and funnier Urinetown, Walmartopia is presumably dedicated to inciting active public response. "How Low Can You Go," a musical telephone conversation between Chinese factory owner Xu (Pearl Sun) and Walmartopia CEO Scooter Smiley's (John Jellison) will send a chill down your spine, even though New York has yet to be introduced to the ever expanding marketer of mostly Chinese-manufactured products at incredibly low prices. (When faced with the CEO's threat to take his business elsewhere, Xu says she will get "urchins in the alley to work for next to nothing.")

Freeman, the original Acid Queen in The Who's Tommy, and James, most recently on Broadway in All Shook Up, make a solid team as the fearless and motivated mother and daughter, and they are exceptionally fine singers. Double and triple casting (sex changing included) gives all the players a chance to break loose— sometimes going beyond all reasonable boundaries. Of the more amusing conceits in the show that audiences will be quick to latch on to is a speech given by CEO Smiley in which (with no apologies to President Bush) he can't seem to put three words together to make a comprehensible sentence . For what its worth, the disembodied/reanimated head of real-life Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton (Scotty Watson) makes an appearance. Of the more amusing numbers is "March of Executives, " that finds the executives all cut from the same white male supremacy fabric commandeering their swiveling office chairs at a corporate meeting.

Ensemble numbers have been briskly choreographed by Wendy Seyb. David Korin's principal setting is the monochromatic interior of Walmartopia with shelves that are stocked with product from floor to ceiling. No need for unhappy faces given the flair revealed in Miranda Hoffman's today and futuristic costumes. Lighting Designer Ben Stanton manages to put even the most deplorable characters and this most demonized of corporations in a good light. Well, someone had to.

Book, Music & Lyrics by Catherine Capellaro & Andrew Rohn
Directed by Daniel Goldstein
Cast: Sarah Bolt, Bradley Dean, Stephen DeRosa, Cheryl Freeman, Nikki M. James, John Jellison, Brennen Leath, Andrew Polk, Pearl Sun, Scotty Watson, Helene Yorke
Set Design: David Korins
Costume Design: Miranda Hoffman
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Choreography: Wendy Seyb
Music Direction/Orchestrations & arrangements: August Eriksmoen
Sound Design: Tony Smolenski IV/Walter Trarbach
Musicians: Conductor/Keyboards-Augusteriksmoen; Guitar/Banjo -Matt Beck; Saxophone/Clarinet/Bass Clarinet -David Richards; Bass-Gary Potts; Drums/Percussion-Steve Bartosik
Running Time: 2 hours including intermission
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane
Tickets ($65 and $45) at or (212) 307 - 4100
Performances: Tuesday — Saturdays 8 PM; Sunday 7 PM; matinees on Saturdays and Sundays 3 PM. Tickets ($65 and $45) at or (212) 307 - 4100
Opening Night 09/03/07
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 08/30/07 Closing 12/30/07 after 10 previews and 136 regular performances.
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • A New Age Has Begun/ The Company
  • American Dream/ Vicki, Maia, Miguel and Company
  • March of the Executives/ Smiley and Company
  • Baby Girl/Vicki and Maia
  • The Future is Ours/ Dr. Normal and Smiley
  • A Woman's Place/ Vicki, Maia and Company
  • Flash Them Bootstraps/ Sam and Company
  • Heave-Ho/ Dr. Normal and Company
Act Two
  • Walmartopia/ The Company
  • American Dream (reprise) /Zeb
  • One-Stop Salvation/ Counselor, Guard, Vicki, Maia and Zeb
  • The Future is Ours (reprise) /Smiley and Lawrence
  • Socialist Paradise/ Vicki, Maia, Zeb
  • *These Bullets Are Freedom/Alan, Daphne, Otis and Company (*lyrics and music by Steve Tyska)
  • Consume and American Dream" (reprise) /Sam, Zeb and Company
  • What Kind of Mother?/ Vicki and Maia
  • Outside the Big Box/ The Company
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