Walmartopia: Put On A Happy Face

Somewhere between The Pajama Game and The Cradle Will Rock, just to the right of Urinetown, lies Walmartopia, Catherine Capellaro (book, lyrics and direction) and Andrew Rohn's (music, lyrics and music direction) satirical musical that mixes silly fun with serious labor issues in a Wisconsin Wal-Mart.  And though much of the show is rather clever (Act I), the plot eventually surrenders its most attractive features (Act II) turning my intermission optimism into a post-show shrug. 

The customer may come first at Wal-Mart, but according to the authors that privilege often comes at the expense of employees and the community.  During a strong opening number, where enthusiastic workers parade about carrying large yellow happy faces, we hear from an underpaid female employee who sees qualified women continually being overlooked for promotions in favor of less experienced men.  Another employee sings of overnight workers being locked in the store until the morning shift.  A small shop owner says Wal-Mart's ability to lower prices by buying products from countries using cheap labor forced her out of business. 

The story revolves around Vicki (Anna Jayne Marquardt), a single mom who, despite working full time for Wal-Mart for five years, doesn't make enough to afford the company's health plan, forcing her to use the state's insurance.  She's trying to set an example for her teenage daughter, who can't understand mom's loyalty to the company. 

Meanwhile, faced with a sex discrimination suit involving 1.6 million women, CEO Scott "Scooter" Lee (Frank Furillo, playing a character based on real-life CEO H. Lee Scott) tries to improve Wal-Mart's image by using an actual female employee in their new ad campaign.  When Vicki wins the gig, she tries to explain her grievances to the disembodied, still-living head of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton (Douglas Holtz), but Lee manages to get her transported thirty years into the future, as the board room just happens to have an untested time travel machine lying around. 

Act I is quite funny and informative.  We learn of Wal-Mart's "10 foot rule" (enforced to keep employees from talking with each other), the ritual morning cheer, and of company meetings taking place at the local Hooters.  It also has a maniacal, show-stealing performance by Furillo who whips out the book's best lines while bending his body like a Gumby.  He's an absolute riot in the musical's best staged song, named for the real-life CEO's quote to The Associated Press equating complaints against Wal-Mart with "being nibbled to death by guppies."  (Choreographer Shannon Barry's dances are never very complicated, but they show a humorous knack for fun stage pictures).  And though the songs are not especially sharp for a satire, they're generally tuneful and enjoyable. 

Unfortunately, Scott Lee appears for only an eye blink in Act II, which finds Vicki in a drone-like society where Wal-Mart controls everything.  Her plot to ad-lib during a corporate show and denounce life-sucking business practices lacks the comic oomph of the first act, and there's no further mention of her daughter. 

The cast is energetic and likeable, and Marquardt gives a fine effort in the rather colorless lead role, but Walmartopia loses its satirical teeth far too soon, leaving nothing more than harmless guppy nibbles. 


Top: Anna Jayne Marquardt

Center: Company

Bottom: Frank Furillo

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From This Author Michael Dale

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