By Lauren Smart
By Jane R. LeBlanc
By Lauren Smart
By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
So it might take a song or two for a grumpy grown-up to reawaken the obsolete child within and really get into the colorful whimsy and willy-nilly rhyme schemes of Seussical the Musical, the first show of the new season of Dallas Summer Musicals at Fair Park. Although it has some flaws, mostly technical, Seussical, directed by Christopher Ashley, is a sweet, funny show built around the most familiar Seuss characters: Horton the elephant, the Cat in the Hat, the Grinch and Yertle the Turtle. The show stays true to the Seussian style and never pretends to be anything close to cutting-edge. It even makes fun of its own high-tech folderol. In a black-light sequence (a kids' musical cliché) that features glow-in-the-dark fish and giant glowing hands and noses, suddenly the stage lights come up, revealing the all-in-black dancers waving the fish on long wands. They just shrug and amble away.
More unexpected moments like that would help liven up the sometimes static action in the slower sections of Seussical the Musical. Still, what we're seeing in this production is considerably tighter and more focused than the disastrous Broadway version in 2001. After big buzz during previews out of town, Seussical opened in New York that year to a less than enthusiastic critical reception. The actor playing the Cat in the Hat was replaced by Rosie O'Donnell, then the reigning diva of daytime TV. Seussical closed in less than six months and lost its entire investment of $10.5 million.
Stopping here after a long string of well-reviewed performances on the road, Seussical has been reworked and revised. Now it is slick and commercial in a theme park-y way, a style of entertainment the Summer Musicals' audience seems to adore (hello, Blast!, opening June 3). Note that the Music Hall's ushers are forced to wear the Cat in the Hat's floppy red-striped topper as they trudge up and down the aisles like walking ads for the souvenir booth in the lobby.
Get past the gimmicks, however, and this show, at the very least, offers a young audience a more wholesome alternative to the dark, soulless spectacle of Disney's The Lion King. Listen closely and there are even some simple but profound messages in Seuss' words. What is the saga of Whoville but a story of human rights and environmentalism? When Horton sits on that egg as a surrogate parent, isn't it a parable about responsibility and adoption? In the Seuss books lie important themes about the power of imagination, fears of childhood abandonment and the loneliness of being different from the crowd. Oxford-educated Geisel knew how to write directly to that child who not only hears a different drummer but tunes into whole symphonies being played on distant frequencies. This musical interpretation of his stories extends a wide-open invitation to the inner child in all of us to be silly for a couple of hours and not to question the logic of an elephant sitting on a bird's nest or an entire universe existing on a speck of dust.
"Children want the same things we want," Geisel said, "to laugh, to be challenged, to be entertained and delighted." Seussical, conceived by Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty and Monty Python's Eric Idle, tries almost too hard to do all those things by cobbling together a bunch of Seuss storylines. If there's a leading man, it's Horton, the lethargic, lonely elephant (played just right by Eric Leviton) who hears a cry for help from a passing dust mote and discovers it contains the endangered microscopic planet of the Whos. In Whoville, there's young JoJo, the mayor's son (played not too cloyingly by Shadoe Brandt, alternating with Drake English). The kid is being punished by his uptight parents for getting lost in the daydreams he calls "thinks." JoJo's the one yelling at Horton for help. The Whos' planet is on the brink of war, and only Horton can save them.
There's also Mayzie LaBird (Gaelen Gilliland), a flashy flamingo-type femme who abandons her nest and leaves Horton to hatch her egg, and Gertrude McFuzz (Garrett Long), a sparsely feathered bird who suffers from low self-esteem and a lingering crush on Horton. Sour Kangaroo (Natasha Yvette Williams), Yertle the Turtle (Brian Mathis), the Grinch (Darren Matthias) and other Seuss creatures also people the stage, along with the fuzzy Citizens of the Jungle of Nool and the performers of the Circus McGurkus, where poor Horton ends up as a sideshow freak, incubating Mayzie's egg at the top of a droopy palm tree.