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A CurtainUp Review
Seussical The Musical
By Elyse Sommer
You've probably caught some of the gossip that's followed Seussical the Musical from its troubled Boston tryouts to the Richard Rodgers Theater on Broadway. Enough of the out of town and first night reviews have been so dismissive that you may be thinking of it as Seussical the Flopsical. Scheduled as I was to see the show almost a week after this initial round of bullets were fired, I determined to go with a completely open mind.
To cut right to the chase, Seussical has too many good things going for it to be a monumental disaster like Nick and Nora or the completely charmless and tasteless Footloose. While shows like these had little reason for being in the first place, Theodore Geisel's (Dr. Seuss) spare rhymes have the kind of musical rhythm that almost demands animation and singing. The Cat in the Hat, Horton and the tiny Whos of Whoville, plus other Seussian creatures have already, like The Lion King, proved themselves as animated film winners (see list at end of review). A big splashy Seuss musical for all ages seemed an idea whose time has come.
Topping the list of what's right about Seussical: songs like "It's Possible", "Alone in the Universe" and "How Lucky You Are" which are worth listening to over and over again. . . a truly Tony-worthy performance by Kevin Chamberlin as Horton the loyal and lovable elephant, plus Janine LaManna and Michele Pawk as two beguiling Seussian birds, Gertrude McFuzz and Mayzie Ladybird and . . .and two talented teenagers, Anthony Blair Hall and Andrew Keenan-Bolger alternately giving top notch renderings of JoJo from Whoville. . .sets that are fun and filled with bright Seussian colors
But while Seussical it's neither snoozical or flopsical, it's hardly a winsical. Composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens are a formidable Broadway show team, but they're not Theodore Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss) and should not have been saddled with the show's book. Their penchant for successfully blending a multitude of musical styles (pop, rock, Broadway ballads, blues, ragtime and Latin) seemed ideal for a patchwork quilt of a book. Too bad that the quilt is too puffed up and busy to let the individual images and ideas stand out. The result is a show that tries to be too many things to too many little and big people for it to be all things to any of them.
The chief problem stems from excessive Seussianism -- two complete Seuss stories (Horton Hears a Who and Horton Hatches an Egg, countless bits and pieces from the sizeable (44) ouevre including the very first Seuss hit, To Think I Heard It On Mulberry Street.
The idea of using the title character of The Cat In the Hat as the tour guide through this merged Seussian landscape works quite well. As the tall-hatted Cat mime-turned-so-so-singer David Shiner isn't at all bad in the part. However, a small is beautiful approach would have better served the gentle whimsy that has made the Seuss stories with their subtly delivered gentle little sermons about courage and loyalty so endearingly and enduringly popular -- maybe a revue format with the Cat/ tummeler introducing the stories but keeping each separate and without characters from other stories impinging on the anthology.
Given the brief life of the 1999 Broadway revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown (see link at end), which did play it small on glitz and big on authenticity and charming, it's understandable that the producers of Seussical opted to use the mega-musical The Lion King (see link) as its role model for appealing to all ages (and ignoring the fact that The Lion King is built on a single story). While this page to stage translation has characters who retain their Seussian charm -- notably, Horton and JoJo (as well as his parents, Stuart Zagnit and Alice Playten), and the already mentioned "birds" -- they sing and dance alongside an ensemble that could double for show girls and boys from any busy and noisy Broadway spectacle. It makes for more whoopee than whimsy.
It's hard to sort out who is responsible for the show's current staging, besides those aboard since its development stage: Ahrens and Flaherty, choreographer Kathleen Marshall (whose work is energetic but not up to her usual inventiveness, with some exceptions such as a balletic fish number and the delightful "The Military" led by a terrific Erick Devine) and the excellent orchestrator, Doug Besterman.
Some of the tableaus of intermingled stories show traces of the tableaus during the first half hour of Ragtime (see link) which was directed by Frank Galati who's still credited in the Seussical program even though he was replaced by the uncredited Rob Marshall. The clever sets have more the mark of the credited Eugene Lee than any set doctoring by the uncredited Tony Walton (maybe he added some psychedelic highlights to the already blindingly bright colors). William Ivey Long, who took over from Catherine Zuber and is duly credited, seems out of his element. The most appealingly dressed characters are the yellow clad Whos from Whoville and Horton in his simple gray, pachydermic sweat suit.
With the holidays when parents and grandparents are eager to take the kids to the theater, Seussical the Musical should be a hot ticket. On the other hand, with so much of the intrinsic Seussian charm left behind in the move from page to stage, you'd probably do better to spend your money on a couple of the still popular Seuss books or videos.
LINKS TO SHOWS MENTIONED
You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown
The Lion King