Seattle Children's Theatre productions have long earned the respect of their audiences by respecting in turn the emotional and intellectual range of a child's imagination. The tradition continues in the current production of "Seussical," a musical based on the works of the iconic children's author Theodor "Dr." Seuss Geisel.
Instead of creating a concrete world to be passively observed, it puts the imagination of each and every audience member in the driver's seat.
The action is built around an amalgam of many beloved Seuss classics, but the narrative doesn't rely on our familiarity with the base material. Written for the stage by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, "Seussical" could easily have become an episodic affair, the story of "Yertle the Turtle" segueing into "The Cat in the Hat," etc. Instead, the story is framed within the "thinks" of a single child, a boy named Jojo who brings a world to life on a wild flight of spontaneous fancy. The Cat in the Hat is his guide, spurring him on and narrating the action through rhymes alternately taken from and inspired by Seuss' work.
The play opens with Seuss' homage to the power of the imagination, "Oh the Thinks you Can Think," recited by the Cat as Jojo begins to imagine the settings and creatures that will populate the stage. The backbone of the story is quickly established as "Horton Hears a Who!" - in which an elephant named Horton hears a barely audible cry for help coming from a passing speck of dust. The speck is home to the Whos, a race of people too small to be seen by the naked eye. Because of their size, the Whos are completely at the mercy of the elements and desperately in need of aid. Horton, a sensitive, stalwart fellow, is the only one who can hear their pleas and undertakes to save the whole Who civilization, stating, "A person's a person, no matter how small." Jojo's imagination transforms him into the son of the Mayor of the Whos; he is himself a misunderstood dreamer who finds a kindred spirit in Horton.
The inherent lyricism of Seuss' rhymes is the basis for the musical numbers that pop up throughout the play. The music itself isn't particularly innovative, but its exuberance lends itself well to the maelstrom of activity onstage. "Seussical" originated as a Broadway musical (it has been expurgated for younger audiences), and the songs and dances are exactly what one would expect. Considering the themes of imagination and limitless possibility at the core of the narrative, the predictability of the musical numbers can sometimes seem a bit counterintuitive, but the actors imbue them with enough over-the-top energy and whimsy to make them work.
In contrast to the music, the lighting and set design are refreshingly abstract. Besides the general aesthetic style, there is no attempt made to simulate the various worlds of Seuss' illustrations. While Jojo imagines the story that unfolds upon the stage, the audience is in turn able to imagine the specifics of the settings for themselves.
The set is made up primarily of elaborate, bright-yellow, Suess-esque flights of stairs leading no place in particular. The musicians' pit is located behind the central flight, making the players visible, from certain angles, to the audience. The backdrop is a dizzying swirl of colors that take on different hues as the lighting changes. The actors are able to give all the context necessary to make the story work, while the colors and lighting are allowed simply to set an emotional tone for each scene. Few props are used besides the colorful costumes, the occasional puppet and a small cart that follows a circular track around the center of the stage. The cart becomes everything from a train to a bathtub, again forcing the audience to bring their own imaginations to bear while interpreting place and setting.
Each and every actor brings palpable joy and playfulness to her or his performance, while skillfully keeping the play's inherent cuteness just shy of becoming cloying. Daniel Dennis is a perfectly gawky and explosive Cat in the Hat, and Eli Higham an irresistibly curious and steadfast Jojo. But it is Kristen Hopkins in the role of Gertrude McFuzz who is able to bring out the few real moments of pathos. Gertrude, the bird with only one feather in her tail, is Horton's next-door neighbor and irrevocably smitten secret admirer. Gertrude's quest for love, acceptance and, finally, redemption gives a few ounces of honest emotional weight - a bit of complex angst - to the show.
Much of Seuss' work is moral fable at heart, and "Seussical" stays true to its source. At his best, Seuss was able to illustrate moral points by way of having all of his characters make both ethical and unethical choices, as opposed to the simple hero/villain model that is the foundation of so much children's literature. Life is about learning, and we learn so much more from mistakes than from successes. While by no means philosophically challenging, "Seussical" touches on the quiet profundity that belies much of Seuss' later work, such as "The Lorax" and "The Butter Battle Book." While these darker stories are unfortunately absent from this adaptation, their themes of futility, struggle, acceptance and transcendence are present nonetheless.
Seuss' stock in trade was the vastness of human potential, the overcoming of the limitations placed on us by our fears, our faults and our beliefs. He showed children the possibilities that open up to those who cross the perceived barriers of imagination. Is this too simplistic a solution to life's problems? Of course, and of course not. Imagination is the source of hope, and if "Seussical" illustrates nothing else, it shows that hope offers a chance at redemption to any person. No matter how small.[[In-content Ad]]