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David Shiner in Seussical
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
From its press presentation to its rocky pre-Broadway engagement in Boston to its troubled preview period at the Richard Rodgers Theater in New York, the travails of Seussical: The Musical have been chronicled ad infinitum in newspaper columns and on-line chat rooms. Observers suggested that the tone of the show was fuzzy because its creators couldn't decide if their target audience was children or adults, and we all watched in horror as the production endured a great amount of turnover in personnel: The original costume designer, Catherine Zuber, was replaced during the Boston run by William Ivey Long; much of set designer Eugene Lee's work was apparently thrown out and/or spruced up by Tony Walton; and director Frank Galati was unofficially replaced by Rob Marshall. As recently as a few weeks ago, there was even talk that the show's Cat in the Hat, David Shiner, might yield his role to Andrea Martin (who had played it in workshop.)

As it turns out, Seussical's biggest problem is unrelated to any of the above. Though Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens have crafted wonderful songs for the show, what sinks this ship is the fact that the team (who are also credited with the show's book) and their colleagues have tried to do far too much in what should have been one small musical. Aware that so many of the characters and stories of Theodor Geisel (more famously known as Dr. Seuss) are beloved by millions of children and former children, the creators have unwisely attempted to cover all bases. Or, to put it another way, they seem to have been terrified to leave anything out.

The result is a weird conflation of various characters--Horton the Elephant, the Cat in the Hat, the Grinch, etc.--and their adventures. To be entirely accurate: The Cat in the Hat acts more or less as the show's tour guide, and doesn't really figure in the plot(s). But there is still a tremendously off-putting sense of split focus here. I had read from the beginning that most of Seussical followed the action of two of Seuss' greatest stories, "Horton Hears a Who" and "Horton Hatches the Egg"--but I never dreamed until I actually saw the show that Flaherty, Ahrens and company would try to tell both of these tales simultaneously, while also jamming a number of other characters and subplots into the mix.

For those of you who led a childhood deprived of the magic of Dr. Seuss, "Horton Hears a Who" is about an elephant who alone notices that faint cries of help are emanating from a dust speck. His fellow jungle-dwellers think he's nuts, but Horton is adamant about protecting the tiny Whos (as they are called) and their miniscule world, pointing out time and again that "A person's a person, no matter how small." The elephant's big heart is further demonstrated in a separate story, "Horton Hatches the Egg"; here, he is duped into "temporarily" babysitting the egg of a selfish bird named Mayzie, who then hightails it to Palm Beach for an extended vacation. Seussical starts telling the tale of Horton and the Whos quite effectively--and then, right in the middle of it, the egg story begins! Both plots continue to unwind on parallel tracks, for no fathomable reason.

Never does the show's effort to be all-inclusive appear more desperate than in its treatment of the Grinch, here a glorified cameo role played by William Ryall. One can practically imagine Seussical's creators saying to themselves: "We can't leave out the story of how the Grinch tried to steal Christmas, because it's too famous, and it's the subject of a blockbuster movie that's going to open at the same time as our show! But we can't recap the entire Grinch plot, because we simply haven't got time. So we'll introduce the character, forget about him for awhile--and then we'll tell just the last few minutes of his story, since everybody knows it anyway." What a mistake!

Kevin Chamberlin and Sharon Wilkins
in Seussical
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
On the other hand: Flaherty & Ahrens are incapable of writing a bad musical theater song, and Seussical is full of gems, from the infectious opener ("Oh, The Thinks You Can Think!") to the finale. Kevin Chamberlin, a heartfelt Horton, shines in such numbers as "Alone in the Universe" (a duet with the Who child Jo-Jo, played alternately by Anthony Blair Hall and Andrew Keenan-Bolger) and the lovely ballad "Notice Me, Horton" (another duet, this time with the scintillating Janine LaManna as the lovesick Gertude McFuzz). Though the talents of Stuart Zagnit and Alice Playten are largely wasted in the roles of the Mayor of Whoville and his wife, Sharon Wilkins is a scream as the Sour Kangaroo who derides Horton as the "Biggest Blame Fool" in the Jungle of Nool. Michele Pawk is sexy and funny as "Amazing Mayzie," even if the emotional climax of her story with Horton and the egg has been excised (don't ask). Adding a touch of sex appeal to the show are Natascia Diaz, Sara Gettelfinger, and Catrice Joseph as the Bird Girls, not to mention David Engel, Tom Plotkin, and Eric Jordan Young as the Wickersham Brothers. As for Shiner--he's by no means a disaster, but his particularly brand of comic brilliance is not really suited to the Cat in the Hat. Ironically, he is more effective in the second act of Seussical, doing what he does best as he briefly takes on the personae of several other, minor characters.

The show's sets and costumes are certainly bright and colorful under Natasha Katz's lighting; but, perhaps predictably, there seems to have been some disagreement as to how closely they should ape the look of the original illustrations in the Seuss books. Things are better on the musical end, given Doug Besterman's excellent orchestrations of Flaherty's terrific melodies. And though Kathleen Marshall's choreography can't be described as innovative, it's lively and fun. But Seussical as a whole doesn't really work, no matter how enjoyable so many of its individual parts may be.

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