Walmartopia bears the subtitle “A Musical on a Mission.” That mission is clear from the start: to make everybody hate Wal-Mart as much as the play’s writers do. Luckily, Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn have hit on the secret ingredient for their cause: fun. That’s what makes Walmartopia’s harsh mission go down like a spoonful of sugar, and its unforgivably annoying title seem kind of funny once you’re there. The cast is stocked with an outstanding team of musical theater vets delivering incredible punch in every scene, and memorable tunes and clever patter lyrics pack the score. It’s crowd-pleasing Times Square zazz served up with anti-establishment Downtown gall.
The problem is Walmartopia has only one joke. The joke — that Wal-Mart is a power-hungry corporate monster — does not sustain laughs over two hours. The show is at its best (and funniest) when it makes mincemeat of the company’s specific atrocities: low wages, stripped benefits, racial and sexual discrimination. When it paints broad strokes of Wal-Mart’s Gestapo-like vigilance and its effects on a poor single mom’s dreams, it gets schmaltzy and tiresome. The whole second act shows us exactly what we saw in Act One, only zanier and with more dystopic clichés, giving us an hour-long ending that left little room for surprise. This makes me wonder if the show shouldn’t have stuck with its successful 40-minute Fringe Festival format.
While the writers deserve applause for originality, having created a funny, musically memorable show that attacks one of the biggest corporations in the world, its weakness for heart-tugging leaves us with more than a few pat moments. Lyrics such as “How can I think of starry ideals when I can barely get by?” and “We need a new American dream” do not help the anti-Wal-Mart cause.
Wal-Mart, as the show quickly points out, is big. So big that my spellchecker corrected me several times when I forgot the hyphen. Makes me worry for this plucky downtown play and its Broadway ambitions. From everything Walmartopia has taught me, I wouldn’t be surprised if the retail giant raised its enormous foot and squashed the bitty bugger. I hope that doesn’t happen.