nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 31, 2007
Accompanying the press kit that I received for Walmartopia was a 14-page "guide" detailing the "Top Ten Most Egregious Wal-Mart Business Practices" and providing other background material about the presumed target of this presumed satire. (Some of the items—most of which are from sources at least two years old, which is unfortunate—include "Wal-Mart associates earn $2.60 less per hour than the average American retail worker" and "Disabled Workers accuse Wal-Mart of Mistreatment.") None of this material is in the show's Playbill, however, where it could be seen by typical theatre-goers; nor, alas, is it particularly showcased in Walmartopia itself. This is a shame, because a good, pointed, well-considered political musical (à la The Cradle Will Rock or Pins and Needles) would resonate pretty strongly right about now, I think. But instead what audiences are getting in Walmartopia is an egregiously inept Urinetown-wannabe of stultifying proportions. This show, which I was hoping to be able to recommend on this Labor Day, is instead something to warn people against.
A simple recitation of the plot should indicate how asinine this thing is. It's about a loyal Wal-Mart employee named Vicki Latrell in Madison, Wisconsin, who is treated astonishingly poorly by her employer. Her manager, Mr. Pearson, violates just about every common-sense workplace rule in his dealings with her, most notably when he requires her to have dinner with him at Hooters after hours. Vicki goes, even though she already has plans with her daughter Maia (who is also a Wal-Mart employee), because she thinks Pearson is going to promote her. But of course he isn't: he's announcing, instead, the promotion of the less experienced (but male), thoroughly obnoxious Darin.
Now, I haven't been to a Wal-Mart in about 20 years, let alone ever worked in one; but is this really an accurate depiction of how its employees are treated? It's one thing to pay humiliatingly low wages, but quite another to actively spend time humiliating each and every worker on an individual basis. Maybe this show's presentation is accurate, but the lack of Wal-Mart credentials in the authors' bios made me wonder if the company deserved equal time to present its side of the story.
Meanwhile, at Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, a high-level meeting is capped by the announcement that company mad scientist Dr. Normal has brought the head of Sam Walton back to life. (It's not really explained how or why, though there's some mumbo-jumbo about the space/time continuum and the notion of journeying into the future to get a jump on marketing trends.) Vicki and Maia have been sent to Bentonville to perform in a musical glorifying the status of women in the company, and they see the disembodied head of Sam. Because they "know too much" (and because they're starting to mouth off to the executives), they are forced into Dr. Normal's time machine and sent 30 years into the future.
What they find there is a world that has been taken over by Wal-Mart. Apparently every corner of the globe has been infiltrated by the now-Big-Brother-esque corporate monolith, whose subsidiaries include "School-Mart," "Wal-Arts," and "Prison-Mart"—every corner, that is, except for Vermont, which has somehow withstood an invasion that, we are supposed to believe, China, Europe, Russia, Japan, and the rest of the world were all unable to resist. Vicki and Maia get cast in a live television spectacular dramatizing the hoped-for subjugation of the Vermont "terrorists." But during the broadcast, Maia and fellow radical Zeb diverge from the script and convince everyone else of the error of their ways. The show ends with a witless, thoughtless musical number called "Outside the Big Box" that's dangerously vague and ineffectual.
I mean, Vermont? The book, by Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn, is sheer nonsense, and insulting to boot, with gratuitous offensive swipes at gays and lesbians, theatre people, Vermonters, and a host of other innocent bystanders. The score, by the same pair, is equally undercooked. And the production itself is directed with a kind of desperation by Daniel Goldstein, and features an overwrought but underachieving design by David Korins (set), Ben Stanton (lighting), and Miranda Hoffman (costumes; why didn't the executives have matching loafers? why didn't Vicki and Maia get a chance to change out of their street clothes before putting on their "Wal-Mart Musical" evening gowns?).
Stephen DeRosa, as the needlessly mincing Dr. Normal, works hard to steal the show at every opportunity; the other ten performers are less adept at making anything at all of this material, and leading lady Cheryl Freeman (Vicki) still seems a bit at sea, stumbling over lines at the performance reviewed.
If toothless, tepid, dopey Walmartopia is the best our theatre can muster these days in the fight against unbridled capitalism, then we are in a heap of trouble.