This is both a positive and a negative. The best theatre derives its life force from its audience, asking in return only love, laughter, and tears, things Seussical does provide in some measure. But it also elicits your participation in the creation of exotic locales like the mythical Solla Sollew and a tiny Who town, where no theater could take you without an enormous budget and whimsy akin to Geisel's unique variety. When Seussical opened (and flopped closed) on Broadway in the 2000-2001 season, these problems were particularly visible and chafing because of well-documented tryout woes and sky-high ticket prices that placed the audience in the position of bridging the gaps Ahrens (book and lyrics), Flaherty (music and lyrics), and the rest of the creative team couldn't be bothered to fill.
The semi-sparkling new TheatreworksUSA production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre might change that. The show still feels like a glibly constructed Fox in Socks Theme Park, and its bounce-a-minute score never quite captures the dazzle of Geisel's intricately rhymed, tongue-twisting poetry. But a ticket price that can't be beat (free) and the concise vision of director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge make this probably the easiest-to-like Seussical yet.
It's also the shortest and the cleanest: Dodge has trimmed down the already svelte children's version to a whirlwind-brisk 85 minutes of major plot points that avoids any and all diversions from the stories of good-hearted Horton the Elephant (Brian Michael Hoffman), asked to both guard the village of the Whos and egg-sit for a fly-away mother bird named Mayzie, and JoJo (Michael Wartella), the tiniest of Who children who's destined to make a big difference when the Whos' lives are at stake.
These stories pack amazingly well into the compact time frame, suggesting how much fat remains attached to the material. You lose a lot of subtlety, particularly with supporting characters like Horton devotee Gertrude McFuzz (Karen Weinberg), a small handful of songs and scenes (including lengthy sequences set during the Butter Battle), and quite a bit of the Cat in the Hat, who was once a fun-loving omnipresent narrator and has now been reduced to a universal-ensemble functionary that rather defeats the sense of anarchic individuality for which the character has always stood. (However, the actress playing the Cat here, Shorey Walker, is a gifted mimic.)
Dodge has, however, provided something the Broadway production greatly lacked: a concept. She's set the show in a type of Saved by the Bell high school, with each of the Seuss characters evolving from, say, the quiet artist in the corner, the cute-but-nerdy girl or popular-but-mean cheerleader, the overweight loner, and so on. This brings a fresh immediacy to what's frequently a leaden conglomeration of characters and events that don't always make for especially smooth storytelling.
Dodge's MTV-meets-American Bandstand dances deliver nice jolts of energy to the proceedings, as do Tracy Christensen's brightly colored costumes, Matthew Richards's lighting, and Narelle Sissons's improvisatory-hip playground scenic elements. The performances are somewhat more variable, with Hoffman and Weinberg likeable but one-note as Horton and Gertrude and Michael Wartella not at all convincing as an innocent, adolescent JoJo. Kelly Felthous, though, brings some dynamic Kristin Chenoweth-style charm to Mayzie, finding the best balance between the scathing and the sympathetic aspects of her self-concerned featherbrain.
Finding the proper blend of attitudes has always been tough for those tackling Seussical, something the scattershot book and something-for-everyone score don't make any easier. (The use of pre-recorded music tracks means live accompaniment is something else theatregoers are forced to imagine.) It's not clear even from this highly abbreviated version that any revisions, rethinkings, or reductions short of a full-scale rewriting will make this a worthy part of the Geisel canon. But if this production can't smooth out all the rough edges, it softens them long enough for the show to reach the eyes of its intended, single-digit-age audience and their patient parents.