For most New Yorkers only one thing could be worse than the arrival in town of a big-box Wal-Mart, famous for its low prices and low esteem for workers' rights.
That would be the arrival in town of a comic musical about Wal-Mart that is about as amusing as the gun counter at the end of aisle six.
That the big-box behemoth should be the target of a stage-bound skewering is no great surprise. To many, the company – the second largest in the world – is the perfect symbol of corporate tyranny, snuffing out local merchants and barring unions from organising its workers. Making fun of its blue-smock uniforms and smiley-face logos was always going to be hard to resist.
The challenge was taken up by a married couple, Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn. Their first effort was staged to good reviews in their native Wisconsin a few years ago. Last year, the show, Walmartopia, won a berth in the New York Fringe Festival and did well enough to be propelled to an off-Broadway theatre in Greenwich Village this year. Apparently, it was expanded somewhat along the way. What could go wrong? It opened, appropriately, on Labour Day, a holiday dedicated to America's working stiffs. Better still, the audiences here would already be converted. Still absent from the city's five boroughs, a Wal-Mart store is a place most New Yorkers have never set foot and are happy for it.
The message in Walmartopia is meant, noted Capellaro, to "say something about what is going on... when one corporation has so much control and when corporations in general have such a reach into government."
The plot is mostly driven by a mother and a daughter, themselves disgruntled employees until they are conveyed by a time-machine to 2037. By then, Wal-Mart controls the entire country except for Vermont, the hairy-hippie state which has rebelliously broken away from the rest of the nation.
Thank goodness that this is also a comedy, complete with dancing smiley faces bobbing across the stage, the disembodied face of Sam Walton, the founder of the company, on a huge video screen, a mad scientist (the inventor of said time-machine), the occasional, obligatory man in drag and lots of perky show tunes. If the idea of Wal-Mart conquering our world doesn't hurt you, the laughter surely will.
But so obvious a punch bag as Wal-Mart demands treatment that is anything but. Stock your shelves with sophisticated wit and a little nuance and the check-out queues for your show will go round the block.
However, Walmartopia, with its jibes at the "creepy Christian crypto-fascists" who allegedly run the real-life company, may be headed for an early closing down sale, at least if the critics have any influence.
One major union has bought blocks of seats but that may not be enough to sustain it.The show lies "somewhere between bland and witless, just to the right of dull," complained Broadwayworld.com yesterday. "An earnest and dopey jumble of contradictory intentions that, at its most self-aware, struggles between social commentary and third-hand show-biz goof," concluded Newsday.
Wal-Mart, which is as protective of its image as any large corporation, might have had cause to pursue those responsible for this production, not least for purloining its smocks and logos. But with reviews like those, it presumably feels it need not bother.