December 11, 2005


Seussical. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Book by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Kathryn Chase Bryer. Production at Imagination Stage, Bethesda, Maryland, through January 15, 2006.

     Create a four-star production of a three-star musical and it’s still a three-star musical – but more fun.  That’s the Imagination Stage production of Seussical in a nutshell.

     On Broadway, Seussical was, to put it politely, less than successful.  It’s easy to see why: who is the audience?  Parents who remember Seuss’s works fondly will not take kindly to the many changes wrought on them here.  Kids who only recently read or heard the works are likely to be even less forgiving.  Very young children, or ones who do not know Dr. Seuss (are there any?), are probably the best audience.  At Imagination Stage, though, Seussical also appeals to people who simply want to have a good time.

     This is a shortened, tightened and better-focused version of the Broadway show, acted and sung by a cast whose enthusiasm is so great that it more than overcomes occasionally ragged voices.  Mollie Clement as Jojo (the youngest Who heard by Horton) is a gem: a child actress who can really project, who understands her part and who doesn’t rely solely on cuteness, though she has plenty of that.  Rob McQuay as Horton, the nominal hero, is wheelchair-bound and makes the chair into an important part of his character: the way he swerves it, pushes with one arm and then the other to give the impression of a lumbering gait, and spins it around to show surprise is simply marvelous.  Doug Sanford as the Cat in the Hat, who starts the action and helps lace it together, is bouncy, mischievous and just sly enough.

     The story basically combines Horton Hears a Who and Horton Hatches the Egg, emphasizing the former and greatly filling out the subsidiary character roles.  Horton is one of Dr. Seuss’s best creations: simple, steadfast, and warmhearted almost to the point of stupidity – but in a lovable way.  So far, so good.  Where Seussical goes astray, even in this improved version, is in making Horton both too self-aware and too formulaic.  Having him sing about being “all alone” and saying he “found magic” simply rings false.  Such lines as, “I was just a no one…you showed up and showed me something more” could have come from almost any Broadway show of the past 50 years.  They decidedly do not come from Dr. Seuss.  Nor does the idea of giving the bird Gertrude McFuzz (a charmingly animated Jennifer Anderson) an unrequited crush on Horton, which is eventually reciprocated after the egg hatches the famous “elephant bird” and she promises to help Horton care for it.  “You teach him earth and I will teach him sky.”  Oh, yuck.

     Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens might have gotten away with some of their more trivial and hackneyed lines (“alone in the universe too,” “somewhere beyond the horizon” – double yuck!) if Flaherty’s music had been outstanding.  No such luck: the songs are catchy but not infectious, with not a showstopper among them.  The result could be genuinely unlikable in an uninspired production – but this is where Kathryn Chase Bryer, lighting director Jason Arnold, choreographer Michael J. Bobbitt and stage manager Kristen J. Bishel come to the show’s rescue.

     The production is simply wonderful.  The set – one for the whole show – is big, bright and vaguely suggestive of a Seuss landscape.  A ramp in the middle, a trap door in front and various open-and-close panels give the cast plenty of chances to move about, and they do so constantly, with energy that sometimes approaches the manic and generally serves to distract from the weaknesses of the show’s book (which become most obvious in the slow ballads).  Every subsidiary part is well filled.  Patricia Hurley is especially good as “runaway” Mayzie Le Bird, here done in a Marilyn Monroe wig and with as much flashiness as possible.  Priscilla Cuellar makes an effective, bad-but-not-evil Sour Kangaroo, though the dance she leads when preparing to boil the Whos’ dust speck in oil is overdone.  As the Wickersham Brothers, the monkeys who grab Horton’s dust speck and spirit it away, L.C. Harden Jr., Michael Mejia and Joel Reuben Ganz (who doubles as the Whos’ mayor) offer a good blend of menace and mischief-making.  Smaller roles – Brianne Cobuzzi as Mrs. Who and a bird girl, Cyana Cook as another bird girl – are just fine as well.

     There is no way that Seussical is Seuss.  A few minutes with the climactic trial scene (trial scene?), in which the Cat as judge commits Horton to an asylum for the criminally insane (asylum?), makes it clear by just how much this show misses the simple, homespun values of Dr. Seuss.  Nevertheless, Imagination Stage’s production almost saves Seussical from itself.  This is far from a great musical, but the wonderful production certainly makes it captivating.

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