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Cincinnati by Scott Cain


Seussical

When Seussical opened on Broadway in 2000, it was met with a mostly negative critical response and closed at a significant financial loss. The show had come to New York with high expectations based on a positively received workshop and a Tony Award-winning creative team. Following its shuttering on Broadway, and prior to its national tour, the show received some tinkering to address its primary weaknesses. The result is a more polished piece, and the musical is now one of the most often produced shows in the country. The Human Race Theatre Company, a professional company in Dayton, Ohio, is one of 650 theaters which will have presented this family friendly show in 2005. Their production displays enormous creativity in direction, fully appropriate design elements, and a talented cast. For audiences, this is a wonderful alternative to rehashes of the many holiday themed options this time of year, and is a fun and worthwhile production in every way.

Seussical is based on the works of Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) 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 populate this lively morality tale.

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 too many storylines were being brought together. Rewrites following the Broadway version have resulted in many scenes being significantly clarified and strengthened by new lyrics and connecting dialogue. While there are still too many stories being told, they now appear as a much more cohesive package. Also of great value is the fact that the characters are true to the original stories. 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 and scenes questioning the necessity of war.

The score, with lyrics by Ms. Ahrens and music by Mr. Flaherty, is first-rate. 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 songwriting 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 shows it. Standout songs include "Oh, The Thinks You Can Think," "Alone in the Universe," "Notice Me Horton," and "How Lucky You Are." Oddly, one song that is in the published script (and included in the songlist within the program), “Solla Sollew”, wasn’t performed on opening night in this production.

Leading the cast is Mark Chmiel as The Cat In The Hat. Mr. Chmiel is a gifted physical comedian and a capable singer. The Cat interjects himself into the action as host of the story with deliciously devious behavior, and consistently keeps theatergoers on their toes through various audience participation bits. Though Scott Stoney seems to somewhat lack the natural gentle nature associated with Horton the Elephant, he takes on the character’s lovable and devoted persona skillfully in the show’s most important role. As Gertrude McFuzz, Katie Pees is aptly endearing and high strung as the nerdy bird that longs to capture Horton's heart. Her strong singing and perky comedic delivery are clear assets to the show. As young JoJo, Jarod Garel sings and acts confidently. There are also strong performances supplied by Janet Dickinson (as the sultry, yet irresponsible Mayzie), Kelly Corken (Mayor of Whoville), and Deb Colvin-Tener (Mrs. Mayor), but it is Danielle K. Thomas as the Sour Kangaroo who stands out most among the supporting performers. Ms. Thomas supplies high-powered, soulful vocals and a clearly presented characterization much to the audience’s delight. The entire cast brings talent and energy to this sincere tale.

However, despite all of the talented performers, the real star of the show is director Joe Deer. Mr. Deer has infused splendid creativity into his staging of this piece. Without a lot of distracting bells and whistles, Seussical realizes its potential under Mr. Deer’s simplistic approach. The tone of the show is always appropriate in this staging, and there is some inventive use of puppets as well. Deer also serves as choreographer for this presentation, and his dances are suitably fun and animated. Gerald Rheault leads a small three-piece band that is surprisingly able to produce a big enough sound to support the fine score and cast.

The design elements for this production are just right for the material. Mark Halpin provides a unit set sporting shapes and colors reminiscent of the Dr. Seuss books and evoking their whimsical nature as well. The attractive and festive costumes by Jeff Shearer pay sufficient homage to the animals that the actors portray, while still allowing their human characteristics to show through. Impressive lighting by John Rensel conveys mood and setting well, and represents a full palate of colors.

Seussical has become an often produced musical for numerous reasons. It brings well-known stories to audiences in a professionally crafted showcase. It is a family friendly piece and presents situations and lessons that are universal to all people. The lyrics "kind and powerful heart" from "Notice Me, Horton" appropriately describe the show as well, and audience members will be moved by its positive and uplifting messages. The Human Race Theatre Company presents an extremely effective and entertaining production of this musical. The show continues at the Loft Theatre in Dayton, Ohio through December 23, 2005. Tickets can be ordered by calling (937) 228-3630.



-- Scott Cain


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