So Seuss Me

"Adults are obsolete children," said Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, the beloved author of dozens of books that taught children to read and parents to read faster. For generations, toddlers have cut their first molars gnawing corners of The Cat in the Hat and Hop on Pop. Seuss' sing-songy nonsense syllables seem to mesmerize the little 'uns, who can listen to these books a squillion times without getting bored. It's Mom and Dad who grow weary of endless repetitions of "one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish." Many a Seuss book has been "lost" to the top shelf of a closet as a way of giving parents a respite from the tongue-twisting gobbledy-speak of Whoville and the Circus McGurkus.

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.

Enter the Cat in the Hat, played by 50-year-old sprite Cathy Rigby, still tumbling like the Olympic gymnast she was in her teens and still flying on wires like Peter Pan, which she's played on and off for centuries. The Cat serves as the link to all the plot lines, and she also interacts with the audience, mostly to wake them up after some of Ahrens' and Flaherty's more somber ballads. "Get up! Get up!" Rigby commands as she unseats the front row and bounds across their armrests like Robert Begnini at the Academy Awards. Her energy never flags, and although many of us never pictured the Cat in the Hat as a girl (Mike Myers plays the character in an upcoming film), Rigby brings the sort of androgynous buoyancy to the performance that makes gender irrelevant. She sings pretty good, too.

Musically, Seussical is all over the place, a pastiche built on a familiar formula of soulful ballads, inspirational anthems, gospel-inspired showstoppers, some bump-and-grind patter songs, a military number and a soaring pop tune or two with those generic "I can fly!" lyrics so overused in late rounds of American Idol. From "Alone in the Universe," JoJo and Horton's big duet: "One day soon/I know there you'll be/one small voice in the universe/one true friend in the universe/who believes in me." More Seussian is this from one of Horton's solos: "When worse comes to worst/as we all know it will." Now that's more like it.

In some of the 27 songs there's heavy influence from Ragtime, also written by Ahrens and Flaherty. But they've picked up, consciously or un, melodic echoes from Little Shop of Horrors, The Wizard of Oz and even some of the derivative schmaltz of The Lion King. Three tunes in Seussical--"Oh, the Thinks You Can Think," "It's Possible" and "How Lucky You Are"--are repeated in Acts 1 and 2 often enough to become almost hummable, but no, they're forgotten before the key hits the car door. Gypsy it ain't.

On the technical side, the set, designed by James Kronzer, is a giant toy chest that never stops changing size and playing with perspective. Costumes by David Woolard don't overdo it on the cutesy stuff. Horton wears baggy gray pants and a hat with ear flaps, just enough to say pachyderm without getting all Julie Taymor about it.

If only the Music Hall's lousy sound system were gentler to this show. The excessive volume of the overmiked cast nearly ruins Seussical, and it may bruise tender eardrums. The audio levels are heavy-metal loud, often overwhelming the rapid-fire lyrics. Earplugs should be handed out with the programs.

At two and a half hours, Seussical might be abusical for children under 6 who find it hard to sit still for yet another reprise of a reprise. As enjoyable as it is, this is a show that could benefit from a trim of at least 40 minutes and the loss of five or six songs. To quote its author, "Shorth is better than length."

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner