Karen Weinberg and Shorey Walker
in Seussical
(© Joan Marcus)
Karen Weinberg and Shorey Walker
in Seussical
(© Joan Marcus)
When Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty and Eric Idle were preparing Seussical for its Broadway opening in 2000, they let themselves be convinced that the beloved Dr. Seuss material had to be darkened if adults were expected to enjoy the musical at all. The results were disastrous -- no matter which supposed marquee name was commandeered to play the narrating Cat in the Hat. Now, the enterprise has been "youthenized" for TheatreworksUSA, which specializes in young people's theater, but the hoped-for improvements haven't paid off in more than a few superficial ways.

For example, the proceedings sport a bright, festive look thanks to Narelle Sissons' red-and-lavender set with a red-and-white-striped trunk sitting just off center, Tracy Christensen's eye-popping costumes, and Eric Wright's large-scale puppets. When Seuss's marvelous country of Solla Sollew is eventually imagined by these ingenious folks, the result looks like the most lavish party the venerable company has ever thrown to introduce children to the delights of theater.

In addition, Ahrens and Flaherty's score impresses as livelier than before in this 85-minutes go-round. In the original staging, they were frequently stifled by the somber atmosphere; now they're able to breathe. As Flaherty and Ahrens have proved, most memorably in the stupendous Ragtime, he can write effortless melodies on which she always balances nimble words. It's as if light-as-air pastries have been topped with delectable sprinkles. So much for the positives of this production.

The most prominent negative is the way in which first-time librettists Ahrens and Flaherty -- Idle is not involved in this production -- have trimmed the original two-act treatment in order to tell only two Dr. Seuss tales within the framework of youngsters conjuring a play. The focal story is Horton Hears a Who!, the lengthy verse opus in which a benevolent elephant steps up to protect a small community of people whom apparently only he can see or hear.

The other rhymed saga is The One Feather Tail of Miss Gertrude McFuzz, where the title character worries that, in contrast to Mayzie La Bird, her puny tail is unattractive. She contrives to do something about it with a batch of ominous-looking pills, but her adventure in unintended substance-abuse only backfires bigtime. The conflation of the Horton and Gertrude narratives is that she's trying to catch his eye while he's preoccupied with the tiny Who population.

In their attempt to make a satisfactory whole, Ahrens and Flaherty have spliced the stories so that neither one has an easy flow. Adults undoubtedly can follow the fractured plots, but young children can't be expected to make much of what's going on, and therefore they aren't likely to care deeply for the characters. Surely, they won't get the pill-taking lesson, although perhaps they'll retain Horton's reiterated message that "A person's a person no matter how small." The observation is obviously true -- and maybe reassuring to tykes -- but it's also awfully moralistic.

The expanded TheatreworksUSA budget for this production allows for a larger cast than usual, with an even dozen performers on stage. They're headed by Shorey Walker as a busy and extremely hardworking but singularly uncharismatic Cat in the Hat. Of the other eleven actors, only the sweet-natured, balloon-figured Brian Michael Hoffman as Horton catches the attention and holds it. Willie Lee Williams, Ben Tostado and Josh Walden have their moments as three Beastie Boys-like hip-hoppers, but the others -- as too often misguidedly directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge -- try hard to be child-like. The effect is patronizing to actual children.

Because the Dr. Seuss books are fun-filled and because the Ahrens-Flaherty team already has a bouquet of cute ditties like "Oh, the Thinks You Can Think," there's still potential for Seussical. Best wishes to the creators if they decide to return to the drawing-board one more time.