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'Seussical' charming, though muddled plot's alarming

By Iris FangerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 2000



When Dr. Seuss penned his last book, "Oh, the Places You'll Go!," he probably didn't have Broadway in mind. But now the Cat in the Hat, Horton the Elephant, and his other beloved characters will be soft-shoeing, shimmying, and strutting their way to New York. "Seussical," a new musical based on 20 of his stories, opens for preview performances Oct. 15 at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in the Big Apple.

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A tryout at Boston's 100-year-old Colonial Theatre through Sept. 17 is the final stop before Broadway for composer Stephen Flaherty, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, and director Frank Galati - the team that produced the 1998 Tony Award-winning musical "Ragtime."

Mr. Flaherty and Ms. Ahrens began the project more than two years ago with a week of reading out loud to each other from the Dr. Seuss library. They combined the many stories into a single plot.

"The material is in our national psyche. For years I've been going around saying to my husband, 'I meant what I said, and I said what I meant,' " says Ahrens, quoting from "Horton Hatches the Egg."

Theodor Seuss Geisel wrote under the pen name of Dr. Seuss. He remains the best-selling author of children's books in the world, nine years after his death. Among his best-known works are "And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," published in 1937, the two Horton books: "Horton Hears a Who!" and "Horton Hatches the Egg," as well as the early readers, "The Cat in the Hat" and "Green Eggs and Ham."

A film version of another Seuss favorite, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," starring Jim Carrey, will be released Nov. 17.

Speaking about the awesome task of trifling with a childhood treasure, Flaherty comments, "One of the major challenges is an obligation to live up to a certain degree of reasonable expectation because so many people adore, love, and remember not only these characters but the playfulness of the text, the poetry, and the indelible impression that the images make.

"On the other hand, we're working in the theater, in the mode of live performance, and we want to be as vital, lively, and three-dimensional as possible. You want to be truthful to the source, but you need to find a personal take," he says.

Audrey Geisel, the widow of Dr. Seuss, flew in from her home in California for the first workshop performance a year ago in Toronto,

"We hadn't met Audrey before Toronto. She couldn't believe what we had wrought," Ahrens recalls. Since then, the company has cast a new Cat in the Hat - the consummate clown, David Shiner -and dressed the show in sets by Eugene Lee, enhanced by lighting effects designed by Natasha Katz and choreography by Kathleen Marshall.

In mid-August, the 29 actors moved rehearsals from Manhattan to Boston. The cast and musicians held their initial joint run-through four days before the first preview.

"It was a teary moment for Lynn and Stephen, hearing their songs with full orchestrations for the first time," says Bill Conner, president of Broadway in Boston/SFX Theatrical, one of the show's producers, along with Barry and Fran Weissler and Universal Studios. The producers have put up nearly $9 million, including marketing costs, to bring "Seussical" to New York.

A major change during the Boston tryout was the decision to discard Catherine Zuber's costumes "because they were not appropriate. New costumes by William Ivey Long are being produced for New York," Mr. Conner says.

Some members of the audience at the press opening were carried down the aisles in their mother or father's arms. It's safe to say the children loved "Seussical," as did many of the adults, including this writer. But there's a desperate need to take some scissors to Act II.

Despite the jaunty score and clever lyrics, which combine Seuss-speak with Ahrens's additions, and a marvelously agile cast, led by Shiner and Kevin Chamberlin as Horton, problems remain in the musical's book, a confused mangle of too many stories.

But the first act is a charmer, beginning with an extended stand-up comedy routine by Shiner as the antic Cat in the Hat and a rousing opening number for the entire cast, "Oh, The Thinks You Can Think!"

Horton, the elephant who hears the Whos calling from their dust-speck planet, is the central character, surrounded by gospel-belting Sour Kangaroo; Mayzie La Bird, who leaves him to sit on her egg; and JoJo, a 12-year-old from the planet of Who, which looks suspiciously like the Land of Oz pictured in the 1939 film.

By the muddled Act II, however, the addition of Dr. Seuss's environmental message and his antiwar stand act as roadblocks to the climax. Someone needs to "think a think" about clarity of story line and logical endings before opening in New York.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society