You may not be able to make a horse drink if you lead it to water, but give a cow a typewriter and -- holy cow! -- you've got an uprising on your hands.
That's the premise of the song and dance show "Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type," opening Friday, Dec. 14, at the Salt Lake Acting Company. The production, geared toward children but one that adults will also enjoy, is based on the award-winning children's book by Doreen Cronin and illustrator Betsy Lewin.
The story involves Farmer Brown, whose cows and other barnyard critters are unhappy about poor working conditions. Farmer Brown doesn't understand their unintelligible moos and clucks, but then the animals discover an old typewriter in the barn, unleashing the power of the written word.
The matinee-heavy production is a delightful and enlightening story about communication, negotiation and compromise that is well-suited to these times, according to cast member Kalyn West, who is playing a non-cow role.
"They speaks in moos and clucks and clacks so he doesn't understand their language, and suddenly they can write in comprehensible English," said West, a senior at Weber State University who is cast in the show as the perky Hen.
West is not the only cast member with Top of Utah connections. In fact, four of the five cast members are current or former WSU students.
"We joke that it is a Salt Lake Acting Company production brought to you by Weber State University," said Austin Archer, a former WSU student who is playing Duck.
Duck is the neutral party in the story and acts as the show's narrator, Archer explained, controlling the action using a magic "master universal digital high-def 3-D remote control."
"He can fast-forward, or pause or rewind," Archer said.
The barnyard squabble heats up as Cow 2, played by WSU senior Shelby Andersen, discovers a box of old books, including George Orwell's "Animal Farm." After reading the books, Cow 2 becomes agitated and outraged at the working conditions in the drafty barn. Winter is coming and Cow 2 is fed up.
"I'm the cow that starts the rebellion against Farmer Brown," Andersen said. "She gets this idea that they should take over the farm themselves."
But instead of a violent uprising, Cow 1, played by Salt Lake City actress Camille Van Wagoner, persuades Cow 2 to protest through peaceful rather than violent means, Andersen explains.
"She (Van Wagoner) is like the mama cow," Andersen said. "She is the voice of reason."
The cows decide to go on strike and withhold their milk until Farmer Brown, played by WSU graduate Randall Eames, corrects the situation and meets their demands, including providing them with electric blankets. Hen, whom West describes as "very much the cockeyed optimist," soon joins the protest and begins withholding eggs, much to Farmer Brown's dismay.
"The show promotes crossing those bridges of open communication without using force and violence and aggression," West said.
Moo Moo Moo Moo
"Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type" is geared toward children 3 years of age and older, but cast members said adults will also be entertained by the show, which includes some sophisticated humor -- such as the "Animal Farm" reference -- and an eclectic mix of music and dance.
The hourlong musical was adapted for the stage by James E. Grote, with music by George Howe. The score includes something for everyone, from '60s-style pop to big Broadway ballads and classical music.
"I was hooked from the very beginning when a cow starts her day singing like I imagine cows might sing, 'Moo moo moo moo moo ...,' " said musical director Darrin Doman. "Cows that dance and sing? It's just a recipe for a hit show, if you ask me."
The clickety-clack of a typewriter and tappity-tap of a dance routine are ideally suited in a tap number that Archer particularly enjoys as the cows learn how to use the typewriter. Archer is also supremely happy singing backup to Van Wagoner's powerful vocals in "An Electric Blanket Feels Like Home."
The show also includes a big production number called "We Will Fight," a loving sendup to the iconic number "One Day More" in the musical "Les Miserables."
"We even have a flag," Andersen said.
Just because the show is geared toward children doesn't mean cast members won't be giving it their all. In fact, West noted that performing for children is often more nerve-racking and challenging, in that young audiences are more honest about whether they are engaged and entertained by what's happening onstage.
"Children (audiences) are completely unpredictable," West said. "They keep you on your toes and you don't want to let them down."
Andersen agreed: "They will tell you how they feel."
Andersen added that the cast is concentrating on keeping the story real and not dumbing it down just because the show is targeted toward kids.
The show also presents a challenge for the cast in that there are only five in the cast and some of the songs include five-part harmony, Archer noted. That means there's no one to help you cover if you hit a sour note.
"It's some of the hardest music I've had to learn for years," Archer said. "I wasn't expecting that coming into it."
The cast also understands that putting on a good show for a younger crowd is important to help theater thrive in the future.
"We're planting that seed for future theatergoers and future theatermakers," Archer said.
Cow 2, Hen and Duck all agree that the script is hysterical, cute, well-written and to the point, without talking down to its young audience members.
"It's a pretty clever show," Archer said. "There's a lot in there for the parents and adults, and I think that kids are going to love it."