Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's recent The Journey Begins ... Part Two
Though Seussical the Musical was met with mostly negative critical response to its Broadway run during the 2000-2001 season, the production also had many admirers who cited the value of many of the show's themes, the catchy score, and many wonderful performances. For the national tour, which plays currently at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, some of the weaker points with the original version have been improved and the result is a fun, creative, and moving musical.
Seussical is based on the works of Dr. Seuss and combines many of the author's characters and stories into one through plotline. The Cat in the Hat, Horton the Elephant, JoJo, Gertrude McFuzz, and Mayzie LaBird are just a few of the many Seuss characters that come alive in this lively showcase.
The book for the show is by songwriters Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, based on a concept they created with Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle. One complaint heard regarding the New York incarnation was that the plot was muddled and that too many storylines were being brought together. For the tour, many scenes have been significantly clarified and strengthened by new lyrics and connecting dialogue. The characters are true to their original versions.
The themes presented (kindness, acceptance, self-esteem, fostering of imagination, faithfulness, etc.) are simple enough to be understood by children, yet universal enough to touch the hearts of even the most Grinch-like adults. Lessons on peace are told as well, and there is an eerie timeliness to lyrics such as "war is inevitably near" and scenes questioning the necessity of such aggression.
The score, with lyrics by Ms. Ahrens and music by Mr. Flaherty, is top-notch as always. The duo provides a flavorful combination of various musical styles and catchy melodies with lyrics that sound as if Dr. Seuss wrote them himself (some of them are taken almost directly from the books, while others are brand new). This song writing team, who were also responsible for Ragtime and Once On This Island, is one of the finest of their generation and their work on Seussical is no exception. Standout songs include "Oh, The Thinks You Can Think", "Alone in the Universe", "Notice Me Horton", and "How Lucky You Are."
One of the obvious selling points of this tour is the presence of Cathy Rigby as The Cat in the Hat. Ms. Rigby is a favorite of many family audiences thanks to her many stints as the title character in Peter Pan. The former Olympic gymnast provides a plethora of acrobatics and high-energy dancing and is a fully capable singer throughout. Ms. Rigby's greatest asset, however, is her wonderful stage presence. With several funny audience participation moments and an obvious joy for performing, she is an excellent fit for the role.
Eric Leviton sings well and is completely lovable as the dependable Horton The Elephant. Providing possibly this production's best performance is Garrett Long as Gertrude McFuzz. Ms. Long, who impressed critics last season in the Off-Broadway production of The Spitfire Grill, is perfectly endearing as the nerdy bird that longs to capture Horton's heart. Her singing is clear, strong and beautiful, and she displays impressive comedic delivery from beginning to end. As young JoJo, the adorable Drake English (who alternates the role with Shadoe Brandt) sings confidently and has the acting chops that equals that of many of his older peers. Also supplying noteworthy performances are Gaelen Gilliland (as the sultry, yet irresponsible Mayzie), Natasha Yvette Williams (the soulful and aptly named Sour Kangaroo), Don Sitt (Mayor of Whoville), and Amy Griffin (Mrs. Mayor). The entire cast brings talent and energy to this sincere tale.
The director for the tour, Christopher Ashley, likely deserves some of the praise for clarifying the plot since Broadway, along with the authors. Though there are moments where opportunities for improvement in staging can be seen, Mr. Ashley does a fine job of focusing attention to the proper spots and of extracting fully realized portrayals from his performers, even when not the center of attention. The choreography by Patti Colombo and John Charron has its moments and is generally well done.
On Broadway, the sets and costumes for Seussical received a good deal of criticism. The set design for the tour by James Kronzer is an improvement. Both horizontal and vertical curtains are used effectively to reveal only part of the stage (thus allowing for quick scene changes) and many set pieces more closely resemble the well-known illustrations from the books. The costumes by David Woolard are a mixed bag. There are some vast enhancements, while others garments are still not suitably rendered to match the characters. An overall cohesiveness of the costumes is also missing.
Dr. Seuss has been "one true friend in the universe" to millions of young readers for generations and Seussical The Musical wonderfully brings these valuable stories to audiences via a new medium. Though not a perfect piece, the show has much to admire thanks to its professional score, improved book, and wonderful performances. The lyrics "kind and powerful heart" from "Notice Me, Horton" appropriately describe the musical as well, and most audience members will be moved by its positive and uplifting messages. The show continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, OH through February 9, 2003. For tickets, please tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816.