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Thursday, 24 July 2014 17:10

'Seussical' at The Muny: To Seuss it is faithful, one hundred percent

Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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The Details

  • Director: Dan Knechtges
  • Dates: July 22-29, 2014
The cast of "Seussical"
The cast of "Seussical" / Phillip Hamer

There may be a more whimsical, charming, and funny show out there with more heart and smarts than “Seussical” at The Muny, but if so I have yet to encounter it.

This engaging musical stage adaptation of some of Dr. Seuss's most popular stories and characters by the dynamic duo of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens is a must-see for anyone whose childhood included the infectious rhymes and loopy illustrations of Theodor Seuss Geisel.

Although poorly received by critics and audiences when it opened on Broadway in 2000 (it ran for only 232 performances, including 34 previews), “Seussical” was extensively revised for its first national tour; it's this version (the only one licensed by MTI) that's on view in Forest Park. This iteration of the show is a consistently entertaining homage to the work of the late writer and cartoonist that manages the neat trick of appealing to both adults and children. Our party encompassed three generations and we all loved it.

Phillip Hamer

You know you're in Seuss World as soon as you enter the theatre, as Robert Mark Morgan's bright, attractive set consists entirely of giant-sized versions of the books from which the story is drawn. A horizontal pile on the center stage turntable provides the main playing area, while open books stage left and right create places for the younger ensemble members to sit when they're not cavorting on stage. It makes for a nice change from the collection of flats that so often make up the bulk of the Muny's sets.

The video projection screen upstage center displays Nathan W. Scheuer's vivid renditions of Seuss's fanciful illustrations of the jungle of Nool, Whoville, and other surreal locations as well as live video feeds of The Cat on the Hat's occasional forays into the audience. Add Leon Dobkowski's imaginative costumes and Rob Denton's lights, and you have a design that perfectly captures Seuss's quirky, Dali-esque vision.

Ahrens and Flaherty's book is largely based on two of Seuss's better known tales, “Horton Hears a Who” and “Horton Hatches an Egg”. In the former, the soft-hearted elephant tries to save the inhabitants of the dust speck–sized planet of Who from destruction at the hands of the other animals in Nool who, unlike the big-eared Horton, can't hear the Whos. In the latter, Horton is suckered by the feckless bird Mayzie into incubating her egg while she flits off on a year-long vacation. In both cases, Horton's motto – “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant's faithful, 100 per cent” – is severely put to the test before he's vindicated.

Photo: Phillip Hamer

Added to the mix are Gertrude McFuzz, the bird who takes an unwise number of tail-growing pills, and General Genghis Kahn Schmitz, with his war on people who don't butter their bread properly (shades of Swift). In this version of their stories, Gertrude is in love with Horton and grows her tail to attract his attention, while Schmitz becomes a resident of Who. That last bit doesn't entirely work for me, though, as it adds a dark element that feels out of synch with the show's overall tone.

JoJo, whose insistence on having the wrong kind of “thinks” gets him reprimanded by his dad, the Mayor of Whoville, is here as well, although the Muny production has made him female. Narrating it all and taking on multiple small parts is The Cat in the Hat. Altogether the script drawn from around two dozen Seuss books.  Even The Grinch and Yertle the Turtle get cameo appearances.

Ahrens and Flaherty are versatile songwriters, and their score for “Suessical” is a lively and often memorable mix of styles, from Horton's tender ballad “Alone in the Universe” to the brassy ‘60s soul of the Sour Kangaroo's “Biggest Blame Fool.” Ms. Ahrens's lyrics are unfailingly clever and very much in the fanciful spirit of the original books.

Photo: Phillip Hamer

The cast of “Seussical” just couldn't be better. Stephen Wallem has the most to do as Horton, and he does it impeccably, radiating well-intentioned naïveté and continually baffled at the refusal of his fellow Noolians to understand that “a person's a person, no matter how small.” As The Cat in the Hat, John Tartaglia, who did such a fine job directing the Muny's “Tarzan” last month, demonstrates that he's every bit as skilled a performer as he is a director. He sings, dances, clowns about and generally acts as a high-energy presence throughout the evening.

Although only a high school senior, Abagail Isom (of St. Louis's theatrical Isom family), is already a Muny veteran and a thoroughly appealing JoJo. Julia Murney is the perfect vamp as the irresponsible Mayzie while Kirsten Wyatt is a totally lovable Gertrude McFuzz.

Liz Mikel is all big-voiced sass and attitude as Horton's nemesis, the Sour Kangaroo. The young ensemble member who plays the Young Kangaroo is, alas, uncredited. Whoever she is, she does a wonderful job of mimicking the older character in her own way.

Allyson Kaye Daniel, Jessica Lea Patty, and Shea Renne are great fun as the Bird Girls. Raymond J. Lee, Blakely Slaybaugh, and Omari Tau impress with the acrobatic antics as the Wickersham Brothers, a trio of bullying monkeys.

Photo: Phillip Hamer

Gary Glasgow and St. Louis's own April Strelinger are the archetypical worried parents in their duet “How to Raise a Child” and James Anthony has the right level of foolish bluster as General Genghis Khan Schmitz.

What with the nineteen named roles, the ensemble, and the Youth Chorus, the stage is sometimes filled to capacity, but director and choreographer Dan Knechtges insures that it never looks crowded. His choreography is consistently creative and intelligently tailored to the skill levels of the performers, so that even the youngest members of the cast get steps that makes them look good.

Valerie Gebert skillfully conducts the Muny orchestra, which sounds wonderful as always.

The late Theodor Seuss Geisel was a lifelong liberal Democrat who (according to Jonathan Cott's “Pipers at the Gates of Dawn: The Wisdom of Children's Literature”) once described his work as “subversive as hell.” “Seussical” stays true to that aspect of his work as well, and not just with the obvious anti-war message of the General Schmitz subplot.

Photo: Philip Hamer

Running through the show is a message about the importance of imagination, sticking to your guns in the face of opposition, and refusing to be cowed by conformity. “She was never any trouble,” lament JoJo's parents, “till she started thinking Thinks,” but it's precisely JoJo's unconventional Thinks that eventually save Whoville from destruction. In the same vein, when the Sour Kangaroo complains that “somebody's thinking different from us,” she's giving voice to the kind of mindless tribalism that always poisons political discourse. When Horton is put on trial for what having subversive ideas, it's hard not to recall Geiesel's sharp criticism of the late Senator McCarthy's witch hunts in the 1950s. Whether the audience is aware of it or not, they're getting an object lesson in the evils of conformity and the value of creativity.

But then, this entire production is a testament to imagination and creativity. It is easily the best thing I have seen at the Muny this season. It really is fun for the whole family and, at only two hours and a quarter including intermission, it's not so long that smaller fry will get restless, especially given the brisk pacing and unflagging inventiveness of the production. Just go see it, OK?

“Seussical” runs through Monday, July 28, at 8:15 p.m. on the Muny's outdoor stage in Forest Park. For more information, visit their web site.

Additional Info

  • Director: Dan Knechtges
  • Dates: July 22-29, 2014

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