At last Wednesday's preview performance of The Ugly Duckling at Black Hawk College, a most unusual - and most welcome - thing happened: In the one-act play's final 10 minutes, the show finally found the style it seemed to have been searching for during its previous 50.

Playwright A.A. Milne's tale, loosely based on the Hans Christian Andersen story, concerns the efforts of a well-meaning king and queen (Jeremy Kelly and Quinn Bilyeu) to marry off their daughter, the Princess Camilla (Sarah Hammond). This proves to be quite difficult, as a magical spell has caused the kingdom to see the fair maiden as hideously ugly, and subsequently unfit for marriage; only the thoughtful Prince Simon (Nicholas Waldbusser) recognizes her true beauty.

Needless to say, all eventually ends well in this family entertainment, but not before Black Hawk's performers and director, Dan Haughey, momentarily jettison the script for a bit of audience interaction just before the finale. Considering that, up to this point, the production has been performed as a traditional narrative (albeit with a brief, opening song-and-dance), this breaking of the fourth wall in its final minutes is strange, to say the least. But, for this particular performance, it turned out to be a very smart move.

Right before Camilla's and Simon's wedding, Jeremy Kelly stepped out of the wings - and out of character - to address the audience. He and The Ugly Duckling's stage manager (Jacob Lampe) took a moment to distribute prizes to a half-dozen attendees (audience members were given raffle tickets along with admission tickets), and then Kelly gave the youths in the auditorium a choice: Would they rather see the story end with a Happily Ever After for the prince and princess, or a Happily Ever After for his character, the king?

Why, the former, of course, as the kids' applause made clear. Kelly took the news in stride, but did appear (comically) dejected about the snubbing - who, after all, wouldn't want their own Happily Ever After?

Yet before the actor could resume his role in the play's finale, a little girl in the second row - who was probably about five years old - appeared to sense his pain, and blurted out, "I like you!" It was one of those wonderfully spontaneous moments you long for in children's theatre, and the audience's delight was matched by the delight of Kelly, who gave us a moment to laugh before acknowledging the youngster with a grin and a perfectly timed, "I like you."

This proved to be exactly the shot in the arm the show needed. When the actors returned to the stage for the wedding finale, their smiles were brighter than they'd previously been, their movement more relaxed, their banter more assured; for the first time in the show, everyone on stage seemed to be having fun. Black Hawk's Ugly Duckling preview wasn't bad; the show was very respectful of Milne (too respectful, I'd argue) and always earnest. But it rarely exhibited the joie de vivre that you hope to find in entertainments geared toward children.

Milne's jokes were frequently missed, and not, I'm assuming, because they sailed over the kids' heads, but because several of the leads played their roles so close to the vest that they rarely registered as jokes. The low-key, naturalistic acting was perfectly commendable - Melissa Jo Milano played an elderly, male chancellor with utter sincerity - yet the cast members appeared hesitant about commanding their space, and Haughey's staging too often found them in fixed positions, even when they shouldn't have been; at one point, Simon doubles over with a leg cramp when all he's doing is standing there. The Ugly Duckling could have used more movement, and a lot more personality. ("Your attention is wandering," the King says to Camilla in the show's first half, and hers wasn't the only one.)

Happily, though, one performer seemed to exist in a deliriously stylized world of her own. As Camilla's dim-bulb maid Dulcibella, Madison Depoorter gave the impression of utter brainlessness, and rarely has this seemed such an appealing character trait. Speaking in a high-pitched nasal whine - her dialogue sounded as if it were being delivered after an intake of helium - and smiling with vacant, open-mouthed wonder, Depoorter gave a sweetly hysterical performance in her minor role; there's an oft-quoted remark in This Is Spinal Tap that goes, "There's a fine line between stupid and clever," and as Dulcibella, Depoorter is both stupid and clever. (Though he gets even less stage time to do it in, Joshua Kahn entertains himself - and us - as Simon's similarly dopey assistant.)

Like that little girl in the audience, Depoorter is infectiously amusing - Kelly does his best, most effortlessly funny work in his scene with her - and it's a quality that The Ugly Duckling could have used a great deal more of. Despite Heather Bell's colorful costumes and some enjoyable comic routines, the show - during last week's preview, at any rate - wasn't engaging the kids, or the grownups, as thoroughly as it should have; it's a Duckling that, with rare exceptions, remains all too dry.


Black Hawk College performs The Ugly Duckling at the Moline Public Library at 2 p.m. on April 18. For information, call (309) 796-5419.

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