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Paulanne Simmons

"Walmartopia" Attacks and Amuses

Directed by Daniel Goldstein
The Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane
Opened Sept. 3, 2007
Tues. thru Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m., matinees Sat. & Sun. 3 p.m.
$65 & $45 (212) 307-4100 or www.Ticketmaster.com
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Sept. 1, 2007

It's easy to target Wal-Mart, but doing it as tunefully as Catherine Capellaro (book) and Andrew Rohn (music and lyrics) in their new musical, "Walmartopia," directed by Daniel Goldstein at The Minetta Lane Theatre, is another matter. That's not to say the musical is without problems. Like most stagings with a political agenda, it's often strident, obvious and sentimentally sloppy. But "Walmartopia" also has a quality that's essential for theatrical success: it's entertaining.

Beneath set designer David Korins' towering flats depicting Wal-Mart's ominous, well-stocked shelves, Vicki Latrell (Cheryl Freeman) and her daughter Maia (Nikki M. James) toil thanklessly as low-level Wal-Mart employees. Their reward? After twenty years a free polo shirt.

Miguel (Bradley Dean) is trying to organize a union. But he is no match for the opposing forces: Sam Walton's resurrected bodiless head (Scotty Watson), his captains of industry and their underlings, principally the evil Dr. Normal (Stephen DeRosa, a sparkling combination of Gene Wilder in "Young Frankenstein" and in Johnny Depp in ""Charlie and the Chocolate Factory").

It is Dr. Normal's time portal that allows us to glimpse in Act II the future dystopia created by Wal-Mart. In this world, where Vicki and Maia find themselves trapped thanks to their outspoken opposition to Wal-Mart policies, there's no more guesswork in market research because Wal-Mart controls all aspects of human society. There's School-Mart, Med-Mart and Wal-Arts, a kind of Public Theater dedicated to producing works honoring and promoting the Wal-Mart way of life.

"Walmartopia," (born in Wisconsin and bred in New York City's International Fringe Festival) follows the well-established tradition of combining science fiction with political satire, and adds a more recent element: music. Not all of the songs are equally effective, but gospel-inflected "One Stop Salvation" and the tender "What Kind of Mother?" certainly stand out.

Nor is the acting uniformly impressive. But Freeman's voice makes up for her limitations in acting, and James is consistently fresh and charming. What's more, because "Walmartopia" has an abundance of characters, actors play multiple roles often making it hard to distinguish who's who.

Most important, however, "Walmartopia" never loses sight of the enemy. The Wal-Mart executives sing "We're big. We're large. So large that we should be in charge." And they mean it.

Wal-Mart is the largest company in the world and the nation and the world's largest employer with 1.6 million "associates." As an industry leader and an example for other businesses, Wal-Mart pays its employees $2.60 less per hour than the average American retail worker, gives medical coverage to only 48% of its workers and is under investigation for a variety of unethical practices, including discrimination against women and anti-union activities.

If it's not always easy to love "Walmartopia," it's easy enough to hate Wal-Mart. And as the saying goes, the enemy of my enemy is worth seeing.


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