“Obviously, the text is beyond you,” states one character of Walmartopia to another. For a moment, I thought he was speaking to me, because, by that point in the night, I was thoroughly confused. I was confused for several reasons:
1) How a time travel machine was created in Wal-Mart without anyone noticing.
2) Why the creator of said time-travel machine was wearing saddle shoes.
3) (and most puzzling) How a show with so much potential and talent started out as a clever satire and quickly dissolved into a flat attempt at an inspirational show filled with cheap cliches and sad stereotypes.
Warlmartopia, a hit at last year’s fringe festival, tells the story of a Vicki (Cheryl Freeman) a single mother who works at Wal-Mart. Paid next to nothing and working torturous hours, she is struggling to get by and dreaming of a promotion. Her daughter, Maia (Niki M. James) is a part-time summer employee. Stuck in her dead-end position, Vicki plays by the rules in hopes of landing a promotion to management. She cannot afford a home on her Wal-Mart wages, and she and Maia live in a motel. Maia is more rebellious; disgusted by the working conditions of the store and hoping to help other employees form a union.
However, the corporate head Mr. Smiley, has other plans for the superstore. Burdened with rumors of abuse and various lawsuits, he has resorted to a new method of marketing: time travel. His quirky collaborator in the plan, Dr. Normal (Stephen DeRosa) has created a portal through which they can se the future and plan their products accordingly, ensuring success. They also have another helping hand – or head – of Sam Walton (Scotty Watson), the original founder of Wal-Mart, who can converse with and advise them in their plan. The vaudeville-style duet “The Future Is Ours,” in which the Smiley and Normal celebrate their plan, is one of the highlights of an otherwise lackluster first act.
The time travel machine is tested by sending Vicki and Maia into the future (celebrated in a number reminiscent of Peter Allen, complete with a floral shirt and conga line) where they find that Wal-Mart has taken over not only the commercial world but the academic (School-Mart) and the artistic (Art-Mart), run by a Big-Brother type image of Mr. Walton. The only place unaffected by Wal-Mart is Vermont, where, according to the corporate employees, rebellious terrorists lurk, Vicki and Maia, along with another rebel, are shocked at the condition of the world and decide they must do something to change it through – what else? – a musical theatre number.
The show is amusing and at times clever. But the overall impression it leaves is neither inspiration nor fear, but instead, frustration. What this show could have been is apparent, and the actual product is much less satisfying. A clever satire on commercialism would have been a welcome, albeit unoriginal, idea for Off-Broadway. The potential for that is apparent in the opening number, as well as the gospel-style satire, “One Stop Salvation,” sung with impressive gusto by Pearl Sun. Those further the plot, while other numbers, intended to enhance the characters, fall short of enhancement and instead settle for entertainment and some good harmonies. The stronger moments of the show are reminiscent of the satire that was achieved in Urinetown, another success story from the Fringe Festival.
The actual intention of Walmartopia is never solidified. It wavers between a satire, a warning and an inspirational message. “We were born to consume from the cradle to the womb,” the cast sings, sporting large yellow smiley faces. When Wal-Mart expands over America, it claims that it is giving the residents freedom and liberating them from their previous oppressors. Apparently the scriptwriters utilized transcripts of Fox News for inspiration while writing. This is demonstrated in the Act Two number, “Bullets of Freedom,” which the creators might want to copyright before it is heard on Army recruiting commercials. The lack of focus in the show hinders a cast of obviously talented people. As the mother, Freeman possesses strong vocals and a stalwart determination, and James, as her daughter, is a chip off the old block. Jellison as Mr. Smiley manages to channel both Billy Flynn and Donald Rumsfeld, and DeRosa gives Normal a stealthy energy and charm, and also is entertaining as a Vermont hippie in Act II. But the characters don’t seem to know what they are doing half the time, so how could the actors?
The potential for this show is there and it is flying in every direction. However, none of it is cohesive enough and it is tied up much too quickly into a haphazard bow of an ending that strongly resembles the song “Happiness” from You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown , implying that terrorism, dictatorship and brainwashing can all be cured with a hug. That might be a message for Fox News, but not for Off-Broadway.