Honk Your Horn: Celebrate! Musical! Theatre!” streamed last Saturday as the Hangar Theatre’s third virtual production of the summer. With such an over-the-top title, you might expect a broad, genial blast of a show, something akin to “The Music Man.” But what this cabaret-style compilation of musical favorites delivered was actually much subtler.
Inspired by current social events in the wake of George Floyd’s death, “Honk Your Horn” uniquely featured 10 performers of color, all of whom have appeared in past Hangar productions. Their dynamic singing was interspersed with conversation and interviews led by artistic director Michael Barakiva and co-director Gerry McIntyre (director and choreographer of last summer’s “Kinky Boots”). The discussion included the performers’ connection to their self-selected songs as well as the challenges routinely faced by Black, Latinx and Asian actors, with a nod to theatre during the pandemic.
Not many musicals begin with a trigger warning for “graphic images of white supremacy,” but despite this somber note, the two-hour production was dazzlingly engaging and upbeat, thanks to the passionate, gifted performers.
The evening opened with a pre-show conversation between the co-directors, whom we join in medias res, with McIntyre unfortunately never actually being introduced to us. He outlines the stages of his interesting career and cites the ground-breaking influence of “A Chorus Line,” “Rent,” and more recently, “Hamilton.” McIntyre even makes a later cameo with “Be a Lion” from “The Wiz,” which he jokes was his one-song-fits-all number for auditions.
“Honk your horn,” we’re reminded, is a lyric in the opening number, “Benny’s Dispatch,” from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.” Austin Scott—Benny in the Hangar’s 2016 version, who went on to star as Hamilton on Broadway and on tour—performs it with incredible style. He’s joined by a sparkling Alexa Cepeda, also from that show; the real-life couple’s connection is palpable.
An anthemic six-woman version of Barbara Streisand’s “Enough is Enough” comes next, with updated, affirmative lyrics. Terrie Lynne, Aline Mayagoitia, Gerianne Pérez, Desiree Rodriguez, Talia Thiesfield, and Diana Huey impressively coordinate from separate spaces, proclaiming “this can’t go on.”
Apart from the topic and talent, “Honk Your Horn” holds up so well thanks to excellent musical direction by Daniel M. Lincoln and admirable technical projection, courtesy of video producer Chrissy Guest and sound designer Lance Perl.
Each number helpfully includes song title and songwriters; but alas, none of the performers’ names appear. This oversight could have been easily corrected; identifying people of color is basic, respectful inclusion. (Introducing them only in the discussion is far too casual.)
But this is the only detraction in an otherwise splendid show, in which all songs are meaningfully contextualized by the artists. Desiree Rodriguez explains what “Breathe” means to her, “In the Heights” being the first show she saw reflecting her culture. She and Diana Huey were in the Hangar’s “Xanadu.” Next Huey, who played Ariel in the national tour of “The Little Mermaid,” talks about many people’s upset about an Asian actor in the part and how the experience of visiting the Memphis civil rights museum finally prompted her to speak out. And McIntyre tells why he asks her to sing “Being Good Isn’t Enough,” Leslie Uggams’ number from “Hallelujah Baby.”
Talia Thiesfield and Aline Mayagoitia (both seen in “Into the Woods” here) simultaneously sing, with interlaced lyrics, two pieces they find resonant today, from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific”—“You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” and “Cockeyed Optimist.”
Insisting that “laughter is the best medicine,” drag artist Darius Harper (Lola in our “Kinky Boots”) launches a hilarious critique of tokenism in theater with “Random Black Girl (singing soul).”
Thiesfield sings the moving “You Don’t Know This Man” from “Parade” right before intermission, which entertains us with Rachel Philipson’s fine rehearsal and production photos.
Five more songs follow in the second half, culminating in Kris Coleman’s tender “A Song for You,” by Donny Hathaway.
The journey through these musical favorites, interwoven with theater anecdotes and memories, is well worth repeating, and luckily the Hangar’s ticket price includes the ability to re-watch a performance through the following Monday evening. Beyond the music itself, our view “backstage” into actors’ individual personalities, values, and passions makes this enjoyable cabaret show especially intimate, relevant, and valuable.
The Hangar’s final play this summer will be Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” streaming Saturday, Aug. 8, at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, go to hangartheatre.org. $20, students $10.Barbara Adams, a regional arts writer, teaches writing at Ithaca College.