Michael Portantiere enjoys Decca Broadway's just-released CD of Flaherty and Ahrens' Seussical.
Among the many hundreds of original cast recordings, certain albums preserve scores so wonderful that the listener is hard-pressed to understand why the shows in question struggled or flopped outright: Mack & Mabel, The Baker's Wife, and Wildcat spring immediately to mind, but there are countless other examples. To this group may now be added Seussical.
Even those critics and audience members who've been harsh in their overall judgment of Seussical as experienced at the Richard Rodgers Theatre have, almost without exception, praised Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' score for the show. Yes, it has correctly been pointed out that Flaherty often writes within the guidelines of various specific forms and, as a result, his music doesn't tend to sound distinctive. This impression is reinforced in Seussical by, for example, the overt ragtime feel of "A Day for the Cat in the Hat" (which calls to mind--you guessed it!--Ragtime) and the tropical sound of "Horton Hears a Who" and "Amazing Mayzie" (shades of Once on the Island). But it's also true that Flaherty is a supreme melodist. And it must be stressed that, although many of his songs are stylistically reminiscent of his own previous efforts and the work of others, he doesn't appear to actually borrow tunes from himself or from anyone else, à la certain other composers who shall remain nameless. As for Ahrens, her lyrics are pefectly in line with the whimsy of Dr. Seuss, even when she is not directly adapting that icon's words to song.
Many listeners will find that spending some quality time with the brand-new Decca Broadway CD of Seussical is an attractive alternative to attending the show, for at least four good reasons: (1) the lack of a cohesive narrative line in Seussical's book, by Ahrens and Flaherty, is not a problem here; (2) the scattershot physical production of the show, with scenery (credited to Eugene Lee) and costumes (credited to William Ivey Long) that don't really jibe with each other or work on their own terms, is also not a problem here; (3) the sense of a desperation to please among the performers on stage at the Rodgers, noted by several reviewers, is absent on the recording; and (4) the CD is a whole lot cheaper than a theater ticket. Parenthetically, recent internet chat room reports of very young children--as young as age three!--being allowed into Seussical and (naturally) making lots of disruptive noise during performances offer further incentive to just stay home and crank up the stereo.
The vocals of the cast as preserved on the album are excellent. David Shiner as the Cat in the Hat has famously been pegged by Seussical producer Barry Weissler as unable to sing, but that isn't true; he's certainly a better vocalist than the role's current, temporary occupant, Rosie O'Donnell. Though one might have expected that the brilliant physical comedian Shiner would be ineffective on an audio disc, he's truly charming here--and rumor has it that he may never return to the show, so this may be the only way to sample his performance.
There's much more to be savored on this CD. Kevin Chamberlin's childlike sincerity as Horton the Elephant is complemented by the sincerity of the actual child Anthony Blair Hall as JoJo. Janine La Manna and Michele Pawk are sexy and funny as Gertude McFuzz and Mayzie LaBird, respectively, while Sharon Wilkins is her usual, riotous, irrepressible self as the Sour Kangaroo. Stuart Zagnit is ideally cast as the Mayor of Whoville, and it's great to hear veteran Broadway belter Alice Playten as his wife. Finally, the ensemble is top drawer--particularly the Bird Girls (Natascia Diaz, Sarah Gettelfinger, Catrice Joseph) and the Wickersham Brothers (David Engel, Tom Plotkin, Eric Jordan Young).