Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of A Christmas Story
When Seussical the Musical premiered on Broadway 15 years ago, it flopped. However, since then, the show has been one of the most often performed shows throughout the country. It is a staple of high school and community theaters, and gets its fair share of professional productions is well. The current production at Northern Kentucky University brings this tender tale to the local collegiate stage with a new directorial perspective, superb choreography, and solid performances by the student cast.
Seussical is based on the works of Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) and mixes many of the author's characters and stories into one through plotline. The Cat in the Hat, Horton the Elephant, JoJo, Gertrude McFuzz, and Mayzie LaBird are just a few of the many Seuss characters who populate this magical world.
The book for the show is by songwriters Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, based on the concept they created in collaboration with Monty Python's Eric Idle. The show presents numerous themes such as kindness, acceptance, self-esteem, fostering of imagination, and faithfulness which have universal appeal and keep the tone of the original stories. There's a lot that happens in this telling, but it's told clearly and has a strong balance of fun and heart.
The score, with lyrics by Ms. Ahrens and music by Mr. Flaherty, is a flavorful combination of various musical styles and catchy melodies with lyrics that sounds as if Dr. Seuss wrote them himself. Standout songs include the opening "Oh, The Thinks You Can Think!," "Alone In the Universe" (a duet for JoJo and Horton), "Notice Me, Horton" (a soft, plaintive love song by Gertrude), and "How Lucky You Are." Seussical also contains one of the best Exit Music / Bows songs ever written in "Green Eggs and Ham." This mounting seems to be a hybrid between the full show and Seussical Jr., as, at nearly two hours long, it feels like the whole show. However, several characters (General Genghis Khan Schmitz) and songs are cut from the full show version.
At NKU, director Daryl Harris provides a fresh take on the material by setting the action at an elementary school playground. The kids on the playground act out the show at the direction of The Cat in the Hat. The costumes barely hint at the animal personifications fitting many of the characters, but it all works due to a strong directorial vision and execution. There are many effective character interactions, and the blocking and transitions are strong as well. The choreography by Heather Britt is excellent. The dances are cute, fun, visually appealing, and almost nonstop during the ensemble members. The over-the-top partnering moves by Mr. and Mrs. Mayor are hilarious, and the choreography provides energy and activity for the show. Damon Stevens leads a fine sounding seven-piece band.
As The Cat in the Hat, tall and lanky Taylor Greatbatch embodies the character with a slinky, creepy, and mischievous persona which is perfect for the role. His Cat is a combination of the flamboyance of Richard Simmons mixed with the menacing facial expressions of Jack Nicholson. Mr. Greatbatch sings well, and puts his physicality to good use with the dances and other movement. Madeleine Burgoon is a spunky and endearing JoJo and shows herself to be a skilled singer. Brandon Huber brings a more reserved and bookish take on Horton the Elephant than is usually seen, but it works. Mr. Huber is a capable singer, and brings out the caring heart and loyal fortitude which is necessary for the character. Among the supporting roles, there are especially praiseworthy performances from Cynthia Thomas (a nerdy, yet feisty Gertrude), Gabriella Francis (a sultry temptress and powerhouse vocalist as Mayzie La Bird), Brittany Hayes (fierce and sassy, and showing off a big singing voice as Sour Kangaroo), Elle Chancellor (hilarious as Mrs. Mayor thanks to her facial expressions), and Trase Milburn (a kooky Mr. Mayor with mad dance skills). The entire ensemble does an excellent job of maintaining their characterizations and performing the active choreography.
The multi-level playground set design by Ron Shaw provides fun opportunities for stage pictures and playful movements, and is aided by some useful projections. The lighting by Terry Powell includes interesting designs and effects, but could do a better job of cuing the audience in as to who is singing solo lines during some of the ensemble numbers. Ronnie Chamberlain's costumes do a good job of bridging the gap between the look of the children on the playground and the Seuss characters, but without the animal specific details. Most of the Whoville citizens look like they're straight out of the late 1950s or early 1960s, while the Jungle of Nool denizens are more modern day (except for Horton and Gertrude, who have the Whoville look, which is confusing).
Seussical is a piece about love, loyalty, sacrifice, and caring, and setting the action on a school playground provides a commentary on current-day school bullying as well. Northern Kentucky University's staging provides its talented student performers and the audience with some great dancing, first-rate direction, and a new, yet effective approach to a now well-known show.
Seussical continues at NKU in Highland Heights, Kentucky, through November 22, 2015. Tickets may be ordered by calling (859) 572-5464 or visiting www.nku.edu/~theatre/.-- Scott Cain