Mall Mart, The Musical!

[This review is scheduled to appear in Variety the week of May 5th.]

For better and for worse, consolidation of economic power is one of the natural processes of capitalism. And though we reap the benefits of technology, information, and leisure, the cost of these gifts is clear: unilateral policy-making and environmental degradation. To many people in cities and towns around the world, this form of authoritarian monopoly is represented by Wal-Mart, which has been playing hopscotch with Exxon-Mobil as the largest revenue-producing corporation in the world.

In Curious Theatre Company's world premiere of Mall-Mart, The Musical!, Joan Holden (book) and Bruce Barthol (music and lyrics) explore the history of this merchandising behemoth in song, dance, and dialogue, with both serious and satirical intent.

Act I, which covers the humble, small-town Arkansas origins of the family that still owns 40% of the corporation, is a folksy and warm run-up (1942-62) to the Brechtian second act, which focuses on current management strategy and tactics designed to increase international market share and earnings per share.

Jenny Dunne as Ella Samson and Brad Evans as Walt Samson
Jenny Dunne as Ella Samson
and Brad Evans as Walt Samson
Photo by Brian Kraft
It's easy for anyone to identify with the forces that drive go-getter Walt Samson toward retail domination. Much to his chagrin, Samson was kept from the front lines in WWII by a heart murmur, and now he has something to prove in a big way. On the other hand, his wife, Ella, and his brother, Chuck, would be quite content keeping things on a local scale.

Brad Evans (Walt) and Jennifer Dunne (Ella) do their best to establish the initial blush of their romance, but the first scene and opening number, "Small Town Life," doesn't give us much of a foundation from which to invest in their emotional arc. A little more frisson here would allow a greater climax at the end of Act I, when Ella and Chuck lose faith in Walt's direction. Evans' and Dunne's solos could use more production value as well.

Megan Van De Hey as Lydia Sharper and Marcus Waterman as Howard Kraft
Megan Van De Hey as Lydia Sharper
and Marcus Waterman as Howard Kraft
Photo by Brian Kraft
In Act II, double-casting gives karmic overtones to an entirely different set of characters, with Marcus Waterman, who plays John Benton—one of Walt's victims in the first act—now playing Howard Kraft, who heads up the global powerhouse. Waterman deftly keeps Kraft from becoming a caricature of corporate greed while getting his point across in a slick soft shoe, "One World, One Market, One Store," and in the denouement, where he rattles off the statistical evidence of Mall-Mart's domination: 25,000 tractor trailers; 5,000 container ships; 7,000 stores, 10 new stores a week; and the largest retailer in China.

Megan Van De Hey as Verna Boggs
Megan Van De Hey
as Verna Boggs
Photo by Brian Kraft
After Walt passes over his hard-working and ambitious assistant, Verna Boggs (Megan Van De Hey), for store manager, she resurfaces as the cutthroat Lydia Sharper, Kraft's fire jumper and agent provocateur. Van De Hay sells all her numbers with gusto, especially the gutsy and gravelly "When a Woman Hits Fifty" and the Lola send-up, "The Road Not Taken."

Walt's older brother Chuck (Michael Morgan), who seems to have inherited the all conscience genes in the family, reappears as the conflicted Mayor who must decide whether to vote for a new mega-store that will pave over the local marshland, or to tell the company that has underwritten his political career to take a hike. In both cases, Morgan sells us a good ol' boy, happy with life's simple pleasures.

Evans and Dunne come back as Dexter and Harriet Pigeon, a local working class couple with a relationship that parallels their Walt and Ella, but on the other end of the socio-economic scale: He's a shopaholic and she's got a life. The agit-prop feel of Act II, however, keeps their story from transforming us in a meaningful way.

While Holden and Barthol have captured the gist of the issues surrounding the behavior and influence of Public Corporation No. 1, some script doctoring that shows instead of tells would go a long ways toward upping the dramatic stakes. For example Benton's speech to Ella concerning Walt's talent (for always discovering the next iteration of the business model) could easily have occurred in the retail context of the story, rather than in limbo as a testimonial, and some of the "Labor" anthems sung by the ensemble at the end are a little heavy-handed. A good laugh—perhaps a send-up of the barricade scene from "Les Miserables"—would make the message go down a lot easier.

Laura Kruegel, C. Kelly Leo, and Lisa Morse protest in their own way
Laura Kruegel, C. Kelly Leo, and Lisa Morse
protest in their own way
Photo by Brian Kraft
The ensemble does well with a slew of characterizations, though as a chorus they could have used a couple of stronger voices. This was artistic director Chip Walton's first musical in Curious' nine years, and, at times, the choreography lacked vigor and the three-piece band (keyboards, guitar/bass, and drums) both muddies a rich and alternately jazzy and atmospheric score and often drowns out the unamplified talent. Despite its shortcomings, though, "Mall-Mart" has the underpinnings of solid musical, and its message is certainly a needed one:

At our crossroads, we need to address the way we organize ourselves politically and economically or pay for the consequences of our continued over-consumption. One major obstacle to our evolution is multi-national corporations that, with allegiance only to their stockholders, lord over sovereign states, citizens, and media, bending the law to their will. Through advertising, education, and other forms of social patterning, including military and economic strong-arming, humankind has been brought to its knees before the almighty dollar. It's time to break the hegemony of capital growth and focus on human growth.

Curious Theatre Company's world premiere of Joan Holden and Bruce Barthol's Mall-Mart, The Musical! runs through June 9th. 303-623-0524.

Bob Bows


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