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Seussical and Copenhagen

Has there been a musical with more ink spilled, both cyber and traditional, debating its strengths and weaknesses than Seussical the Musical? For some odd reason the show has drawn more venom than Cleopatra's breast. People have gotten so wrapped up in the battles and mistakes which occurred on its journey to the Great White Way that the spirit of the piece has all but vanished. Which is a shame, because at its heart Seussical wants to be a nostalgic return to those wonderful years of childhood when felines in fedoras and egg hatching pachyderms evoked smiles and magic. While few can claim with a straight face or clear conscious that Seussical is a 100% realization of this wish, it tries, gosh darn it, and mostly succeeds. When I saw the show in December I believed that its strengths far outweighed its flaws and found it to be a charming show with few pretentious. The newly released cast album evokes the same response and its nearly 76 minutes perfectly encapsulates the show's strengths and flaws.

Seussical the MusicalAs I am sure you already know, Seussical the Musical is an attempt by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens to adapt a dozen or so of the late great Dr. Seuss's children's books for the stage. This is no easy task, as his works barely contain enough material for a half-hour animated cartoon, a genre much better suited for his visual style and gravity defying lines. His books are largely visual in appeal, with the text being more descriptive than action packed, and thus do not lend themselves easily to musicalization.

Whether or not the show succeeds visually is for another reviewer to decide, but the cast album holds up exceptionally well as an adaptation of his work when divorced from the Seuss-inspired sets and costumes. Indeed, the album sounds incredible and is one of the best produced show albums I have heard in a long while. The instruments are remarkably clear and the differentiation between them is sharp. The show starts with a wailing electric guitar driven overture and the energy rarely lets up, in large part thanks to wonderful orchestrations by Doug Bester. Musically, the show is a mixed bag, with every genre represented; from Latin to ragtime to calypso then onward to gospel, R&B and funk. Stephen Flaherty's main strength as a composer provides one of the weaknesses of the show; namely that he does not have a distinctive 'sound' to his work, instead matching his writings to suit the needs and style of the show. When he has a definite palette with which to work, such as Once On This Island's Caribbean aura or the turn of the century fusion of ghetto and immigrant music that made up Ragtime, he is at his strongest. Without such strictures, the music wanders all over the stylistic map and fails to create a unified whole.

This actually mirrors the biggest flaw in the show; namely that the creative team strives to include too much and as a result Seussical gets lost in its own possibilities. It's as if the writers were kids in a candy store, who, having access to all this wonderful stuff, couldn't resist grabbing a handful of everything instead of choosing the two or three items that would satisfy. The show is at its best when it focuses on the thread started with its opening number, "The Thinks You Can Think," a catchy song more than a little reminiscent of "They're Playing our Song" fused with a Mentos commercial. When Seussical focuses on imagination and the problems encountered when dreamers come into contact with folks who are reality driven, the show flies. Kevin Chamberlain makes a delightful Horton, the elephant who hears voices and sits on eggs. Imagine Eeyore on Prozac and you have an idea of the resigned quasi-hangdog quality Chamberlain brings to the part. His duet with JoJo, (Anthony Blair Hall) the touching ballad, "Alone in the Universe" brings the show into tight focus, as the two outcasts unite in their mutual love of the incredible. Unfortunately this focus is slow in coming and flickers in and out throughout the show.

When Seussical goes off this tangent, it flounders and becomes mired in 'in-joke' territory. "A Day for the Cat in the Hat" serves no purpose other than to bring the show to a screeching halt, until the 'dreamer' theme is reestablished with JoJo's delightful song "It's Possible (McElligot's Pool)." "Here on Who," through which we get acquainted with the folks inhabiting the dust speck, gets bogged down by references to The Grinch, The Lorax and The Butter Battle Book, all of which will confuse people not acquainted with the complete oeuvre of Dr. Seuss. Indeed, the whole Butter Battle/Military segment serves no purpose other than to give JoJo further conflict (although it does provide us with one of the most imaginative uses of Dr. Seuss' rhymes - turning Green Eggs and Ham into a military 'sound off' number).

All in all, however, the album is worth getting if only for some killer performances. Much has been made of the beleaguered David Shiner's performance as the narrator of the show, the Cat in the Hat. When I saw the show, I found him to be modestly enjoyable, but lacking the presence, vocal or otherwise, needed to carry off the part. On disc, he sounds much stronger, thanks to the magic of studio mixing and more than holds his own. Janine LaManna is the standout on the album as Gertrude McFuzz, the lovelorn neighbor of Horton who dreams of catching his eye with a medically enhanced tail. Each of her numbers is better than the last and Seussical is worth buying solely to hear her bravura renditions of "Notice Me, Horton" and the ultimate torch-song, "All For You." The supporting players are stunning, if largely underutilized. Sharon Wilkins gives a Patti LaBelle meets Aretha Franklin turn to the Sour Kangaroo, showcased with "Biggest Blame Fool," a number that has been toned down for the disk. Michele Pawk lends a delightful sassy quality to her few solo bits as Mayzie LaBird, the mother-to-be who abandons her egg to Horton for some fun in the sun, and Stuart Zagnit and Alice Playten are excellent as the Mayor of Whoville and his wife, developing the one-note characters well beyond what was written.

Special mention must be made of Lynn Ahren's lyrics, as she has done a masterful job of writing new lyrics which blend with Dr. Seuss's words in such a seamless manner that I was surprised to discover that only seven of the twenty-eight tracks are attributed to having lyrics by the two. How can you not love someone who comes up with such a perfect Seussian line: "If you're hungry there's shlop in the Frig-a-merator." Seussical the Musical is a cute album that anybody who grew up on Dr. Seuss should enjoy, and I am looking forward to giving a copy to my niece when I visit her this weekend.

CopenagenFynsworth Alley, which has been devoted to performers and shows from the musical spectrum of Broadway, has recently released a complete studio recording of Copenhagen, the Tony Award winning play of 2000. The entire play with its original cast of Philip Bosco, Tony Award winner Blair Brown and Michael Cumpsty is preserved on disk thanks to the efforts of Tony winning director Michael Blakemore and producer Bruce Kimmel.

Copenhagen is a fictitious account of an actual event; the meeting in 1941 between two giants in the field of quantum physics, Niels Bohr (Philip Bosco) and Werner Heisenberg (Michael Cumpsty). What the two actually discussed has been the subject of many a debate, especially given Heisenberg's ties to the Third Reich and its race for the atomic bomb, and Copenhagen gives us a fictional account of what may have happened. The play by Michael Frayn is one of the most intelligent shows to hit Broadway in recent memory and is expertly captured on disc. It is a captivating listen that makes a wonderful companion for a long car trip or airline flight as it contains 118 minutes on two CDs. Be forewarned: this is not a disc to throw in for a casual listen or before bedtime as it is very addictive. This is not something you will want to stop and start and is best served by completing in one sitting. Fynsworth Alley deserves a round of applause for preserving this masterpiece, and one hopes that we will see more such recordings in the future.


-- Guest columnist, Jonathan Frank


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