nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
July 17, 2007
Seussical, the Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical inspired by the works of Dr. Seuss, is getting a top-notch revival from the folks at TheatreWorksUSA. The talent both on stage and behind the scenes is first-rate. Likable, enthusiastic performers flood the stage of the Lucille Lortel Theatre, executing perfectly rehearsed dance moves against a colorful backdrop filled with imaginative designs, all in the service of one of America's most beloved and influential authors.
So why, then, does watching Seussical feel like such an exhausting chore? There are several reasons for this, I think, the first of which is the show's inherent cloying nature. Aiming squarely for the children's entertainment market, it seems, Ahrens and Flaherty have written an aggressively cheerful show, and a sometimes condescending one. The weird lunacy and the sly profundity and wit of the Seuss books—i.e., the qualities that make them so accessible to both children and adults—is glaringly absent from Seussical. They are replaced instead with watered-down, kid-friendly versions of the platitudes one might find in Seuss's Oh, the Places You'll Go!, and turn Seussical into a by-the-numbers self-help booster pep rally.
Then, there is the show's problematic structure. The majority of Seussical focuses on Horton the Elephant, the protagonist of Seuss's Horton Hears a Who!, and his efforts to save the micro-sized citizens of Who-ville, all of whom live on a clover. Complications ensue when Horton gets captured by hunters and sold to the circus—all while egg-sitting the soon-to-be offspring of the glamorous (but negligent) mother-to-be, Mayzie La Bird. Plain Jane Gertrude McFuzz, a bird who only has one feather growing out of her tail, loves Horton and desperately pines for his affections. The Cat in the Hat is also on hand as Seussical's resident narrator/utility player.
Seussical crams in so much exposition about every character, no matter how major or minor, that Ahrens and Flaherty don't even get to the interesting parts of the story until an hour into the show (which is about 20 minutes before it ends). There is also a sameness to the generic-sounding score (cut from the same gentle cloth as an animated Disney movie) that makes the songs all run together after a while. With 23 musical numbers in 80 minutes, this is downright deadly.
Not to mention that Ahrens and Flaherty miss a golden opportunity simply by limiting the amount of Seuss's extraordinary characters that appear here. The Grinch and Yertle the Turtle are relegated to one-line cameos. The Lorax, the Sneetches, the Zax, and Sam (from Green Eggs and Ham), among many others, are nowhere to be found. Why would one want to limit their options with so many wonderful characters at their fingertips? It's completely inexplicable.
Director/choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge and her cast go above and beyond the call of duty trying to upsell all of this, and they do a really admirable job. Many times they seem as if they're on the verge of breaking through to Seuss's brand of crazy energy, but Seussical continually holds them back. For a show that generally does not allow room for the performers's personalities, Kelly Felthous (Mayzie) and Karen Weinberg (Gertrude) do the best job of inserting theirs anyway. The other actors are all very talented, but I wouldn't particularly call this a good showcase for any of them.
The final word on Seussical belongs to its intended audience. The performance I attended was packed with savvy New York City kids of all ages, all of whom were miraculously quiet and attentive for the show's first hour. But then they seemed to figure out that Seussical wasn't going anywhere, and quickly became restless and loud. Lots of squirming in seats ensued. I knew exactly how they felt.