Seussical the Musical
I recently made a discovery. I have discovered the most pleasant and welcome sound one could expect in a theatre: the unbridled laughter and applause of children. The Alberta Theatre Projects production of Seussical the Musical is the source of this wonderful epiphany. The production, aptly produced and performed, is remarkable for its ability to entertain the vast numbers of children in the audience. More impressive, perhaps, is its ability to attract and hold the attention of the adults, too.
Seussical the Musical, the brainchild of composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist/ bookwriter Lynn Ahrens, was a colossal failure on Broadway, closing after only a six-month run. However, it soon became a huge hit on the regional and amateur circuit. Ahrens and Flaherty also revisited their work for a new "Theatre for Young Audiences" version, stripping away the elements that they felt were too dark and too distracting. It is this version that is currently being performed by ATP.
Seussical follows the exploits of Horton the Elephant as he devotedly protects the tiny Whos who live on a speck of dust. Horton faces the derision of his fellow jungle inhabitants, including a forceful Sour Kangaroo and the tiny kangaroo in her pouch, feisty bully monkeys the Wickersham Brothers, and the self-absorbed bird of loose morals, Mayzie LaBird, whose interest in Horton extends only as far as she can lure him into sitting on her egg while she goes off on a yearlong spree. The only friend Horton has is his devoted and doting neighbour Gertrude McFuzz, the bird with a one-feathered tail who is desperately in love with Horton, although he doesn't notice. Meanwhile, on Who, the Mayor of Who and his wife have troubles of their own, trying to keep their imaginative young son JoJo from letting his "thinks" get away from him.
The whole story is narrated and manipulated by that most mischievous of Seuss creations, the Cat in the Hat. Add to this story the wildly imaginative and inventive score by Ahrens and Flaherty and you have an exciting and heart-warming evening of theatre. Thankfully, in the capable hands of the cast at the Martha Cohen Theatre, ATP's production delivers the thrills and touching moments in droves.
The ensemble gathered by ATP is remarkable. Michelle E. White makes a comically overbearing Sour Kangaroo. Her vocals are impressive; the gospel-inflected tones of "Biggest Blame Fool" allow White to unleash her spine-tingling voice in full force. Kevin Corey, Stirling Karlsen, and Scott Olynek make a fantastic trio of devilish Wickershams. Corey is especially notable, doing double duty as the Mayor, as well. As the sleazy party girl Mayzie LaBird, Natascha Girgis makes a stunning presence in her exceptionally bright and highly feathered costume. Girgis is an obvious dancer and takes great pleasure in strutting and parading her glorious feathers across the stage.
As Horton the Elephant, Sheldon Bergstrom makes a wonderful ATP debut. He is a happy-go-lucky Horton; when Horton is duped by Mayzie into sitting on her egg, is captured by hunters, is sold to a circus, or is thrown on trial, he remains hopelessly devoted to Who. Bergstrom sings with a soft, gentle tenor; his lovely duet with JoJo, "Alone in the Universe," is one of the more touching moments I've experienced in the theatre in quite some time, amazing for its pure innocence. Also superb is Ksenia Thurgood as Gertrude McFuzz. Thurgood's strength is in managing to make what could quite easily become a one-note (one-feathered?) character into a wonderful depiction of dedicated love and affection. Thurgood's greatest moment comes in the powerhouse number "All For You," wherein she deftly and loudly reveals her love for Horton, who is finally listening.
Local celebrity Dave Kelly (former host of the City TV morning news program) is an excellent and hysterical Cat in the Hat. While Kelly's vocals are not as strong as those of the cast around him, he manages to command the stage whenever he is on it, appearing in several hilarious roles and disguises. Kelly had the audience in stitches as the host of a TV talk show, making obvious references to his off-stage persona (truthfully, the adults were laughing harder than the children during this sequence, but that's okay, it's a show for all ages, after all). Also hilarious is Kelly's turn as a pseudo-Germanic doctor who gives Gertrude hope for a bigger tail with some powerful pills. Most important to the success of the story is the dynamic established between the Cat in the Hat and JoJo; it is the Cat who first incites JoJo to imagine the entire story, and his appearances throughout the play are dramatically structured to propel JoJo to move the story forward. Kelly's rapport with JoJo is hilarious and touching.
Finally, the true star of the evening simply has to be young Marcus Trummer as the creative but conflicted JoJo (the role is shared with Kyle Dewsnap on alternating performances). Trummer, a local grade four student, sings and acts like a seasoned professional; his facial expressions, reactions and gestures are all wonderful. I found myself consulting the program several times just to assure myself that he is indeed that young. Trummer holds his own with an entire cast of professionals. When finally left alone on stage to sing his first big solo, "It's Possible (McElligot's Pool)," Trummer does not disappoint. Although young, his vocals fill the auditorium; the same is true on the aforementioned duet with Horton, "Alone in the Universe." Trummer blends his vocals effectively with those of Bergstrom; the simple yet beautiful harmony of the number comes through with chilling results. It is a testament to the power of good theatre that a simple song in the midst of a story based on the goofy and zany tales of Dr. Seuss could bring an audience of children and adults to a prolonged, touching, and awed silence.
Director Glynis Leyshon has done a wonderful job with this production. In a show such as Seussical, the tendency to allow spectacle and general zaniness must be hard to resist (this is generally accepted as one of the main reasons for the failure of the original Broadway mounting of the show); however, Leyshon wisely allows the story to be the central focus. There is spectacle, of coursethe crazy costuming, the immense tails of both Mayzie and Gertrude, the impressively huge eagle that steals Horton's clover (and the Whos with it) and deftly flies out of the auditorium before intermission. All of these elements are essential to tell the story, but never once do they overpower or undermine that story.
Congratulations are also due to the musical director and keyboardist, Joe Slabe. The orchestra for this production is reduced to keyboards and percussion; it comes as quite a surprise, for throughout the entire performance, I never once noticed how small the orchestra truly is. Slabe's musical direction is wonderful; Flaherty's score has a tendency toward frenzy when performed without restraint, but Slabe keeps things in check, whilst never once losing the excited, forceful, syncopated feel. Percussionist Rod Thomas Squance also deserves a special mention for the dizzying array of percussion instruments he plays throughout the show.
Seussical the Musical continues to spread its zany magic spell through December 30th at the Martha Cohen Theatre in the Epcor Centre in Calgary, Alberta. For tickets, call 1-403-294-7402 or visit the ATP website at: www.atplive.com.