Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Book by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty
Directed and Choreographed by Dan Knechtges
July 22, 2014
The stories of Dr. Seuss are among the familiar, much loved staples of childhood reading for countless children around the world. Filled with clever rhymes, fantasy and wonder, these classic stories have entertained and inspired generations of children, and it’s not surprising that someone eventually had the idea to adapt them into a musical. The latest entry in the Muny’s current season, Seussical is a show that’s full of rhyme, song and whimsical flights of fancy, cast with a strong lineup of Muny veterans that bring the classic tales to life in a gentle fashion that seems designed to appeal most to the youngest members of the Muny audience.
Paying musical tribute to the various works of the esteemed Dr. Seuss, this show focuses primarily on the Horton the Elephant stories, with elements from many other Seuss tales thrown in here and there. Narrated by the illustrious Cat in the Hat (John Tartaglia), the story begins with a group of children celebrating the works of Seuss in the bouncy, memorable song “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think”. A little girl (Abigail Isom) is brought into the story as Jojo, the daughter of the Mayor of Whoville and his wife (Gary Glasgow, April Strelinger). The Whos live on a tiny planet contained in a speck of dust that is found by the earnest, dependable Horton (Stephen Wallem), who deposits the speck of dust on a clover and vows to keep it safe. Horton’s neighbors in the Jungle of Nool are very skeptical and, led by the confrontational Sour Kangaroo (Liz Mikel), question his discovery. Meanwhile in Whoville, Jojo is questioned by her parents and the other townspeople because her imagination is too vivid, so she’s sent to a military school led by the loudly belligerent General Genghis Khan Schmitz (James Anthony), in order to teach her discipline. In the Jungle of Nool, insecure bird Gertrude McFuzz (Kirsten Wyatt) pines for Horton while the self-absorbed Mayzie La Bird (Julia Murney) flies off to enjoy a vacation while leaving Horton to sit on her egg. From there, the story unfolds in fantastical Seuss fashion, as Horton and Jojo struggle to find their place in their worlds and the Cat in the Hat guides the audience through the whole journey, as narrator, commentator and occasional participant.
The first word that comes to my mind when thinking of this production is “colorful”. The design team, led by scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan and costume designer Leon Dobkowski, has certainly brought a whole lot of color to the Muny stage, inspired by the Seuss’s style but not directly copying it, especially in the costumes. The stage is set up like a storybook wonderland, with a giant open book at center and surrounded by several giant-sized Dr. Seuss books with familiar titles such as Green Eggs and Ham, The Cat In the Hat, Horton Hears a Who, etc. The books and scenery are painted in a rainbow of bright colors, as are the inventive, simply styled costumes that suggest the characters rather than literally representing them. The birds, for instance, wear bright dresses with fluffy skirts, and many other characters are wearing brightly colored outfits with earpieces and/or tails or, in the case of Horton, a trunk to distinguish their species. The Whos are similarly colorful, and General Schmitz is decked out in garish purple camouflage. It’s a visual feast, and fitting for the bright, imaginative tone of the musical itself. The staging is also well imagined, using every inch of the Muny stage, and even involving the audience in some fun moments such as bouncing beach balls around and following the Cat as he wanders throughout the audience followed by his “news camera” on various occasions, including a fun Muny in-joke referencing Tartaglia’s last appearance at the Muny in Aladdin. Aside from the Cat and a few other more energetic moments, the show is mostly paced more gently and a lot less madcap than I had expected. It’s a kids’ show first and foremost, and the staging makes that clear.
Performance-wise, the cast is in excellent form, with strong performances all around, supported with much enthusiasm by the Muny’s Youth Chorus. Tartaglia brings a great deal of charm to the role of the Cat, serving as an ideal tour guide through the production, and playing various other characters as needed along the way. He’s not nearly as over-the-top as he was as the Genie in Aladdin, although that is fitting for the more gentle tone of this production, and he leads the production with style from start to finish. Wallem is appropriately earnest and likable as Horton, and Isom turns in an especially impressive performance as the imaginative, determined Jojo, with a strong, clear voice and great stage presence. Her duet with Wallem on “Alone In the Universe” is a memorable moment. Wyatt is also very strong as the quirky, lovesick Gertrude, and Murney has some great moments as the impossibly vain Mayzie. Anthony as the stubborn General Schmitz is also a stand-put, bringing a lot of energy to his song about “The Military” and leading his army (and the reluctant Jojo) into a ridiculous and futile battle using “Green Eggs and Ham” as a marching chant. Mikel also makes a strong impression as the bold, contrary Sour Kangaroo, and the ensemble seems to be enjoying every minute on stage.
There are several sweet moments in this show, such as the bouncy, recurring “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think” theme and the lullaby “Solla Sollew”, and even some wit and irony in the many reprises of “How Lucky You Are”. There are a few moments here and there of humor and themes that adults will be able to appreciate more than kids, although everything is primarily geared toward the children. I brought my 14-year-old son to this show, and he agreed that this production is probably best appreciated by kids a few years younger. I think it’s most suited for kids ages 5-10, as well as anyone with a particular appreciation or nostalgia for Dr. Seuss’s stories. It’s all very sweet, charming and colorful, with a strong cast and a very Seuss-esque aesthetic, although it isn’t quite as crazy or energetic as I had hoped. With a valuable message that encourages imagination and acceptance, and a catchy, memorable score, Seussical is definitely a worthwhile production especially for the very young.