When most people sit down to share Dr. Seuss with a child, they go through the books one at a time. The creative team of Seussical the Musical is having none of that. Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens insist on sharing more than a dozen Seuss books with you -- right this whimsical instant.
Seussical (on the Civic's Main Stage through Dec. 18) can boast Flaherty's music and Ahrens' ability to blend her own insights with the chiming rhymes of all those Seuss stories. But there's just too many of them. While Horton the elephant and the tiny little Whos are familiar enough, The Butter Battle Book and McElligot's Pool add unnecessary material that isn't exactly foremost in the minds of casual Seuss fans. The second act, moreover, would be better at half the length. Flaherty and Ahrens try to cram the Grinch, the Hunches and Yertle the Turtle into an already shaggy narrative, resulting in a bunch of unmemorable musical numbers.
At least the better songs in Seussical work on two levels. As Pixar and Disney -- and Dr. Seuss himself -- have demonstrated, the best children's entertainment also appeals to grownups, and Ahrens and Flaherty follow suit by creating songs that work on two levels. The various reprises of "How Lucky You Are" will seem upbeat to kids, but their parents will notice the irony: Horton, for example, isn't feeling very lucky at all while being gawked at as a circus animal. "Notice Me, Horton" is about Gertrude's unrequited love for the elephant. In "Solla Sollew," director Jean Hardie disperses so many people around the stage, all longing through song for a happier place -- Gertrude, the Whos, JoJo, Horton, Mayzie and the Bird Girls, the military cadets -- that their unhappiness becomes obvious. In fact, Hardie manages to herd cats as she guides her large cast through a variety of styles: swing, samba, R & amp;B and more.
Despite some malfunctioning microphones and under-rehearsed chorus members, the production elements in the Civic's Seussical are strong. Gary Laing's five-piece band shifts styles from one peppy tune to the next without overwhelming the singers. Peter Hardie's backdrop projections and Nik Adams' cartoon cutout figures convey Seussian caprice. Susan Berger and Jan Wanless contribute a variety of costumes, with the Whos in quirky orange and yellow, and with the Amazing Mayzie and her Bird Girls sporting large tufts of feather-boa tails. During "It's Possible," an ultraviolet lighting effect has the ensemble in oversize fish heads and white gloves, "swimming" as the Cat uses a coach's whistle to keep this "school" in session.
Several featured singers stand out. As JoJo, the Who boy who connects with Horton, fifth-grader Jordan Butler avoids the cringe factor of most child actors; he has a natural, likable demeanor onstage and a nice singing voice. As Horton, Greg Pschirrer doesn't get to display his dancing ability, through he's earnest enough as an elephant who just wants to do the right thing. Whether she's in Florida on vacation or just singing about her own amazingness as Mayzie, Angela Snyder can belt out a song. As Gertrude, the bird with the one-feather tail, Kendra Kimball knows how to yearn without being ridiculous.
But the real standout in this cast is the Cat in the Hat, played by -- even his name sounds Seussian -- Max Kumangai-McGee. As the Seussical emcee, Kumangai-McGee is one hep Cat. He's a traffic reporter and TV interviewer, an auctioneer and a soldier. He turns simple entrances into sprinting, sliding, arm-waving blasts; he dives into the orchestra pit and then pops back out of it; he mimics Ray Charles and pretentious British doctors. But Kumangai-McGee's best moment arrives when Mayzie goes to Palm Beach and the Cat, suddenly her cabana boy, shimmies and flounces, rolls his Rs, serves drinks and rubs in lots of soothing lotion.
Kumangai-McGee just might become a musical comedy star. At this point, his physical comedy is more accomplished than his singing -- but sheer exuberance makes him an onstage delight.
The book of this musical is crammed way too full, but months from now, playgoers won't recall the rambling structure. What they'll remember is the rubberneck sashaying and infectious mischief of Max Kumangai-McGee as the Cat in the Hat.
Publication date: 11/25/04