On New Year's Day this year, Madison residents Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn gathered their 8-year-old twin sons, their dog and their "baby" - a musical they wrote called "Walmartopia" - and rushed to the Dane County Regional Airport to catch a 7 a.m. flight.

They arrived in New York at an empty Upper West Side Manhattan apartment with only an air mattress for furniture. But they were prepared to develop "Walmartopia" for the New York stage.

Eight months later, "Walmartopia" - the scrappy one-act musical that debuted at Madison's Bartell Theatre in 2004 - is now a full-fledged show Off-Broadway, officially opening today at the 400-seat Minetta Lane Theatre with an open-ended run.

Capellaro and Rohn's campy political satire is the first Madison amateur community theater to land a prime, big-money spot on a New York stage. "Walmartiopia" is presented eight times per week, with tickets at $65 and $45.

A story of struggle

The now-married collaborators have been active in theater in Madison since the early '90s, when they met while working on a show at Broom Street Theater. Now they're part of the hyper-competitive New York theater scene. It's an exhilarating experience, they say.

It's also no coincidence that "Walmartopia" opens on Labor Day. The show tackles "two sides of the same coin," as Capellaro puts it: specifically, it rips the labor practices of the world's biggest retailer and condemns the homogenizing effect of big-box sprawl on communities.

This message is couched in a story about an Everywoman worker at Wal-Mart, Vicki Latrell, and her gutsy teenage daughter, Maia. A loyal employee, Vicki struggles to protect her job and her daughter while finding the courage to speak up about unfair working conditions. When a mad scientist from Wal-Mart headquarters gets involved, she and Maia are whooshed 30 years into the future, into a dystopia where Wal-Mart owns everything, including souls.

Besides the mother-daughter story of Vicki and Maia, all the usual elements of a musical keep the show from devolving into a dry lecture on labor economics: neon lights, jazz hands, slapstick jokes and flagrant (but creative) use of Wal-Mart's iconic smiley face.

There is no effort made to disguise direct references to Wal-Mart. The writers aren't worried about a lawsuit, however.

"It's better to ask forgiveness than permission," said Capellaro after a preview performance Wednesday.

No legal action is under way against "Walmartopia," according to Wal-Mart spokesman David Tovar. Although he says he hasn't read the script or seen the show (and doesn't plan to), he discounts it as "a futuristic musical that's not based on fact, just like there's no 'Phantom of the Opera.'" He adds that he read in a Women's Wear Daily article that the writers based their research on news reports and have "never set foot in a Wal-Mart."

Not true, says Capellaro. She and her husband belonged to Sam's Club but quit when they started finding out more about Wal-Mart (which owns Sam's Club) through books, such as "Nickel and Dimed" and "Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers' Rights at Wal-Mart."

"Walmartopia" is a fictionalized story grounded in reality, counters Capellaro: "There is no 'Phantom of the Opera,' but there are people living like ('Walmartopia' lead character) Vicki Latrell."

'A great metaphor'

Minetta Lane Theatre is tucked away on a narrow side street off Sixth Avenue. Around the corner last week, a sweaty game of street basketball was unfolding inside a fenced-off court. Friends and passersby milled around the court.

In a way, this impromptu game fits perfectly into the world that "Walmartopia" advocates: people creating entertainment for themselves instead of buying into what Rohn calls a "monoculture" that, like Wal-Mart big-box stores, is "so profoundly ugly and depressing."

"Wal-Mart is a great metaphor for a lot of things going on in the world," adds Capellaro.

"Walmartopia's" inspiration was planted in 2004, when Capellaro and Rohn were asked to write a short musical about the commercialization of art for Madison-based Mercury Players' 10th Anniversary Playfest.

As "Walmartopia" developed over time through productions in 2005 and 2006, they beefed up the political message to address workers' rights.

When they got to New York in January, they began the "necessary but painful process" of tearing their showapart and putting it back together. They tossed out musical numbers, wrote new songs and strengthened the mother-daughter relationship to help the New York show gel as a story.

But don't ask them to choose between the old productions and the current one.

"It's like being in love with two different people," says Capellaro. "I miss the show we had before, but I love the show now."

New York City doesn't have a Wal-Mart and city dwellers aren't typically mall shoppers. But director Daniel Goldstein says he sees no need to water down "Walmartopia's" message for New Yorkers specifically, beyond tightening the show for a general audience.

"New Yorkers love good political satire," says "Walmartopia" choreographer Wendy Seyb, a Minneapolis transplant who's been living in the city 12 years. "They'll totally get it."

The full house at a preview performance on Wednesday seemed to enjoy it. The rapt audience laughed loudly at the humor.

Thanks to generous contributions from Madisonian philanthropist Dale Leibowitz, "Walmartopia" has been able to raise the production value beyond what's expected even for a typical Off-Broadway show. For example, 20-plus wigs have been custom made for the cast and the old cardboard Wal-Mart smileys have been replaced with durable, snazzy-looking plastic ones.

Leibowitz keeps a low profile. Her name doesn't even appear in the program.

Capellaro and Rohn stress that it was the enthusiasm of people in Madison, not money, that got them to Off-Broadway.

"It bounced us to the Fringe Festival (in New York) and then bounced us here," says Capellaro.

Rohn adds, "I keep wanting to convey to people who do art in Madison and other small places that I don't think there's a qualitative difference between here and there. The soul and spirit of performers is the same."

They plan to return to Madison to work on a new musical about intelligent design versus creationism and going "back to the drawing board" with their 1995 musical "Temp Slave," another Madison-originated hit show.

As for "Walmartopia," they say the show will evolve as the news evolves. They want to see it eventually go on tour.

"Wal-Mart is going to be around for a very long time," Capellaro says. "But I hope we get through to them."

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