Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Sneetches are furry and bright yellow creatures, divided into two camps: those with stars on their bellies, and those without stars. By some ancient understanding of the way things are, starred Sneetches are considered superior in every way, and have exclusive domain over all privileges and pleasures in their beach-front habitat, while the bare-bellies toil all day and never have any fun. One day, an enterprising fellow named Sylvester McMonkey McBean arrives with a "star-on" machine that imbeds the all important stars right on the starless Sneetches, allowing them to blend in with the starred elite. When the original star-bellies are not able to distinguish themselves from the newly star-stamped up-starts, they panic. McBean has the answer for them too: his star-off machine. The original Star Bellies have their stars removed and can rest easy, once more able to tell themselves from their inferiors.
But McBean isn't through. The original bare-bellies go through the star-off machine too, once again looking like the original starred sect. Back and forth they go, stars on and off, each time charged a higher fee, until their money is all spent and McBean departs, leaving the Sneetches in a truly mixed up state. How to tell who are the superior and the inferior Sneetches? McBean has brought ruin upon themor maybe not. The whirlwind of stars on and stars off prompts them to begin to ask why this small difference keeps us part, and allows half of us to oppress the other half.
The original very short story has been expanded by playwright Philip Dawkins (whose play Le Switch was one of the best reviewed plays of 2016), focusing on a young star-bellied Sneetch named Standlee and a middle-aged star-less Sneetch named Diggitch. Standlee is a lonely, socially awkward child, with no friends among the other star-bellied Sneetch-kids. Diggitch is also lonely. He has a soul-crushing factory job stenciling stars on large beach balls, which, of course, are shipped to the star-bellied Sneetch side of the beach. The two chance to meet and, against Diggitch's better judgment, become friends. When Diggitch unthinkingly steps over the red line in the sand separating the two camps, Sneetches on both sides go up in arms. Of course, blame for the transgression is heaped on Diggitch, who, in desperation, brings McBean and his star-on machine to the beach, hoping that will end the division among Sneetches and allow him and Standlee to remain friends.
Dawkins has added another twist to the story. He allows McBean, the con man who drives away with every last sneetch dollar, to make a case that he is not to blame. All he did was offer the service. The Sneetches were only too eager to buy what he had to sell, heedless of the futility of constantly adding and subtracting stars, to say nothing of the larger question of why it should matter. This offers wry insight regarding the price we pay for a viciously spiraling consumer culture.
Since it was decided to make The Sneetches a musical, the show is punctuated with songs composed by David Mallamud. Unfortunately, none of the songs makes much of an impression. While the highly animated staging by Peter C. Brosius and festive choreography by Michael Matthew Ferrell make the musical scenes fun to watch, they don't really add to the forward motion of the show. Might The Sneetches have worked better as a non-musical play? Musicals are a very popular attraction these days, and I am a huge devotee of musical theater. But this score does not express a sense of life among the Sneetches or the off-kilter universe of Dr. Seuss. The generic pop tune sounds on stage could as well be plugged into any number of shows, neither diminishing nor advancing their impact.
But on to the good stuff, and there is plenty of that on stage. The performers all seem to be having a world of fun, and that spirit reaches out to the audience. Natalie Tran is terrific as young Standlee. She is earnest, inquisitive, goofy and out-spoken all at once, and is developing a strong singing voice. In recent years, Tran has played children in numerous shows at Children's Theatre and on other local stages. Here, for the first time, she plays a lead, and handles it like a pro. Her partner is Children's Theatre stalwart Reed Sigmund as Diggitch. As always, Sigmund draws our sympathy to his character, while bringing out all the funny business the part can muster. Dean Holt, another longtime Children's Theatre company member, is the Beachwatcher. His character has a passive role, commenting on the action from a lifeguard chair perched above the line of demarcation between the stars and star-nots. Holt is in fine from, bringing out the irony and satiric notes in his lines, though the part does not allow him to show off his gift for physical comedy. Bradley Greenwald plays Sylvester McMonkey McBean, creating a con man who is charming and persuasive, with malevolence in his back pocket.
Other characters flesh out the Sneetch communities with distinctively drawn personalities: Denizens of the star-bellied side include Kim Kivens, singing in pure voice as Standee's prim and proper mother; Essence Stiggers as her big sister Mee Mee, a Sneetch version of a valley girl, and George Keller as her uber-hip grandmother, Gramlee; Max Wojtanowicz as officious Mayor Snietzsche; and Michael Wieser as the teacher, Mr. Snickety-Sneetcher. The downtrodden Sneetches without stars are less distinct. Most memorable are Ryan Colbert as teenage Stelvinwho has the best dance moves on stageElizabeth Reese as his activist mother Winnifix, and Sara Ochs as a feisty elder woman named Maudge, who resembles Granny Clampett from TV's "Beverly Hillbillies."
Creating the world of Seuss has got to be a field day for designers, and the creative team at Children's Theatre have done a great job of bringing the Sneetch beach to life and dressing the Sneetches in dazzling array of costumes, each worn over their yellow fur. The costume worn by Sylvester McMonkey McBean, the only non-Sneetch on stage, is a fantasy combination of wizard and carnival barker, and his star on/star off machine is a fabulously wrought invention.
Dr. Seuss' work has a timeless quality that combines fanciful, wildly improbably characters, comical rhyming verse, and themes of how to live better lives. Those lessons range from opening our minds to the possibilities of the unknown, protection of our natural world, the pitfalls of vanity, the importance of working together and compromise, and, as in The Sneetches, the cost of bias and discrimination based on superficial differences. That the book was published in 1961, as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, may be just coincidence, or it may have been how Seuss (known to be politically liberal) contributed to the cause, entertaining children while delivering a message of equality among people. If that was a good idea in 1961, it is not less so in 2017. Dr. Seuss' The Sneetches the Musical may not leave us humming joyful music, but it leaves us with the joy and foresight of Dr. Seuss' vision, which is gift enough for me.
Dr. Seuss' The Sneetches the Musical continues at the Children's Theatre Company through March 26, 2017, at 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN, 55404. Tickets are $15.00 - $71.00. Ten percent discount for purchase of six or more tickets. For tickets call 612- 874-0400 or go to childrenstheatre.org. Recommended for all ages.
Book and Lyrics: Philip Dawkins, based on the book The Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss; Music: David Mallamud; Director: Peter C. Brosius; Choreography: Michael Matthew Ferrell ; Music Director: Jason Hansen; Scenic Design: William Boles; Costume Design: Alex Jaeger; Lighting Design: Paul Hackenmueller; Sound Design: Sten Severson; Stage Manager: Chris Schweiger; Assistant Directors: Benjamin Hanna and Michelle Schwantes; Assistant Stage Manager: Nate Stanger: Assistant Choreographer: Krysti Wiita; Assistant Lighting Designer: Kathy Maxwell; Assistant Sound Designer: David Thomas; Produced with permission of Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P.
Cast: Paul R. Coate (Mervidge), Ryan Colbert (Stelvin), Bradley Greenwald (Sylvester McMonkey McBean), Dean Holt (Beachwatcher), George Keller (Gramlee), Kim Kivens (Mrs. Upplee), Sara Ochs (Maudge), Elizabeth Reese (Winnifix), Lamont Ridgell (Aristartle), Reed Sigmund (Diggitch), Essence Stiggers (Mee Mee), Natalie Tran (Standlee), Michael Wieser (Mr. Snickety-Sneetcher), Max Wojtanowicz (Mayor Snietzsche).
Ensemble: Elise Benson, Lauren Bonner, Mario Esteb, Maia Hernandez, Zachary Hodgkins; Kennedy Lucas, Nambi Mwassa, Keegan Robinson, Christian Tesch, and Maxwell Chonk Thao.