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And To Think That I Saw It On Boylston Street

Marc Miller finds that Seussical has improved 1,000% since the show's Boston tryout engagement. logo
David Shiner in the
pre-Broadway Seussical
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Let's scuttle the scuttlebutt, foremost and first:
The out-of-town dish had us thinking the worst,
Which only confirms the suspicion that Beantown,
Besides being cold, is a cranky and mean town.
Now, after a lengthy and costly revamp,
Seussical looks like a musical champ.

The good news is, it's not so bad. The bad news is, it's not so good. That was more or less the critical consensus as Seussical: The Musical opened on Broadway last week after delays, rewrites, redesigns, and more attendant tongue-wagging than any musical since The Capeman. This theatergoer has a far more favorable take, but that's with the benefit of second sight: I saw an early preview of Seussical in Boston, and the ugly duckling on view there makes this version look that much more swannish.

We're in the Colonial, gilded and grand,
But what's on the stage isn't quite what they planned.
The costumes are ugly, the action confused,
The staging lethargic...the crowd, not amused.
And though it's a tuneful and sweet-tempered show,
You think: Oh, the places that this will not go!

The Seussical on display in Boston was, as it is now, a pleasant, eager-to-please musical comedy; but it was also a disorganized mess. Given the rights to all the Dr. Seuss characters and all the stories except the Cat in the Hat books and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty seemingly tried to shoehorn in every single one. As a result, the central story's central character, Horton the Elephant, was literally lost in the shuffle. Side trips included a needless visit to the Who boy JoJo's classroom, a witty but irrelevant Act Two production number ("You Fit Right In"), and a long, preachy detour to the land of the Lorax, a whimsical creature succumbing to environmental decimation. The Cat in the Hat (David Shiner), employed as the evening's emcee, was pushed into the action arbitrarily and without explanation, to little effect. Most damaging of all, the production--sets by Eugene Lee, costumes by Catherine Zuber--owed as much to Our Town as to the Seuss drawings, with functional, bare-bones props (e.g., a naked stepladder to represent the nest where Horton the Elephant famously hatches that egg) and outfits one step up from street clothes (Horton, played winningly by Kevin Chamberlin, was clad in what amounted to a gray velour jogging suit). To be sure, there was plenty to enjoy: Flaherty's bottomless bag of melodies, Ahrens' Seuss-sympathetic lyrics, and any number of expert performances, from Janine LaManna's adorable Gertrude McFuzz to the underused Stuart Zagnit and Alice Playten as a droll Mr. and Mrs. Mayor of Whoville. But the randomness of the storytelling diminished the impact of the main plotline, while the cut-rate-looking production values and rampant anthropomorphism suggested a desire on the part of the producers to do a Lion King on the cheap.

Then, sensing impending disaster, the Weisslers
(It probably cost them a couple of Chryslers)
Uncharacteristically bolstered the budget,
Scrapped most of the costumes, and didn't begrudge it.
Then, making the action a great deal less spotty,
They hired Rob Marshall to spell Frank Galati.

Kevin Chamberlin and Sharon Wilkins
in Seussical on Broadway
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
What a different, confident, fast-paced musical is now at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. (And what an apt venue; Flaherty, with his effortless gift for gorgeous melody, seems a far more natural heir to Rodgers' than Rodgers' actual grandson, Adam Guettel.) The irrelevancies are still there--do we really need a Grinch?--but they're greatly reduced. The Cat in the Hat's presence is succinctly explained in a simple opening-number verse, lending more resonance to all his subsequent appearances. He even has a big new Act One number featuring an all-feline chorus line; it's a bit off the point, but it's fun, and it doesn't stop the action dead in its tracks. Nor does Shiner have to come out at intermission and kibitz with the kids in the audience, a tactic that added to the air of desperation in Boston. Mayor and Mrs. Who have more to do, and Whoville is more purposefully, satirically a '50s-style Pleasantville where the wives wear sensible shoes and "if you're hungry, there's Shlopp in the Refrigemerator." (You go, Lynn!) General Schmitz, a standard booming baritone in Boston, is now more pointedly a riff on General MacArthur. Poor Horton, who had to spend virtually all of Act Two on that unadorned stepladder, now gets the run of the stage--and a spiffier ladder. "You Fit Right In," which didn't, is out. Retro musical-comedy pleasures have been inserted: a smartly choreographed curtain call and a real overture. (Am I the only one who misses overtures?) Best of all, William Ivey Long has been let loose on the costumes. His designs, a riot of Seussian colors and fanciful fabrics, are the perfect visual embodiment of a musical whose primary object, after all, is to celebrate and stimulate the triumph of imagination.

As out to the lobby the patrons were filing,
They mostly were laughing and humming and smiling.
But as it's an evening more gentle than manic,
Seussical possibly pull a Titanic?
Will people respond to the sweet charms it throws off
When, several blocks north, hard-hats take all their clothes off?

Janine LaManna in
Seussical on Broadway
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
On the night I saw Seussical at the Rodgers, the audience seemed to be having a wonderful time. Less synthetic than Aida, less hard-sell than Lion King, Seussical fills a niche for theatergoers who like their kid-friendly musicals modest, heartfelt, and nutty. Whether these theatergoers will turn out in sufficient number is an open question. One would like to see Seussical "pull a Titanic." That musical, you will recall, arrived with such deafening negative buzz that expectations were exceedingly low. When it turned out to be less dreadful than predicted, serviceable looked like great--all the way to the Tonys. But that was a lean season. Seussical already has The Full Monty to spar with, not to mention The Producers, the Follies, revival and other promising shows waiting in the wings. Still, if pleased crowds can spread the word, Seussical might have a shot.

While unemployed blue-collar workers clad scant'ly
Are more to the liking of folks like Ben Brantley,
From Boston to Broadway, this wholesale revisal
Became truly worthy of Theodore Geisel.
The house is the Rodgers, the show is called
Grinches may loathe it; I'm more than entheussical.

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