Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Narrated by The Cat in the Hat, the musical mainly follows the adventures of Horton the elephant whose journey begins when he hears voices coming from a speck of dust which he discovers are a group of people called Whos. No one believes Horton, but he decides to protect the Whos as best as he can. One of the Whos, a young boy named Jojo, struggles to find his place within the Who society, while Gertrude McFuzz, a bird who doesn't believe she will ever get noticed because she only has one feather on her tail, tries to get Horton's attention since she is in love with him. All three characters have numerous mishaps and adventures as they seek to find their place in the fantastical Seussical world.
Conceived by Monty Python's Eric Idle and the songwriting team of Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), Seussical smartly interweaves many of the well-known characters from several of Theodore Geisel's Dr. Seuss books into a fun show with a zany plot. The score features several upbeat, toe-tapping tunes as well as some very moving ballads with humorous lyrics that play off Seuss' famous rhymes. While the plot is a bit scatterbrained, it is interesting and easy enough to follow for younger theatergoers.
Brett Aiken's direction has the same sense of playfulness and inspired lunacy that his cast infuse in their characters. He makes effective use of the large ensemble and adds many fun and inspired directorial touches throughout. These include using animated projections, puppetry, and the use of black light in a few scenes where the images on stage glow with shimmering colors. Yet, with all of these smart, additive touches Aiken still ensures that the show's heartfelt messages of the power of friendship and realizing you're not alone in the universe are never forgotten.
Choreographer Tina Khalil contributes fun and funny steps that are danced well by the cast, all of whom have exceptional singing voices which sound great under James May's expert music direction. Bobby Sample's set is superb, with numerous colorful set pieces, both large and small, with wild shapes and bright colors that play off of the famous illustrations in the Seuss books without copying them. Michelle Barry's abundant prop designs echo Sample's imaginative work as do the exceptional, and plentiful, colorful costumes from Aurelie Flores and the wildly creative hair and make-up work of DeAndrea Vaughn. Aiken's lighting design washes the stage in numerous lush colors that tie perfectly into the rest of the creative elements.
Performances by the cast are all great. Joshua Vern is superb in making The Cat in the Hat mischievous, comical and playful, while Austin Beggs does well in portraying Horton as a loving, compassionate and kind soul. As Jojo, Josh Pike is sensational, giving one of the best performances I've seen in the Valley from a performer of such a young age. Pike has an excellent singing voice and great stage presence and I expect a bright future for him. The duet he shares with Beggs of "Alone in the Universe" is full of beauty and a moving moment between two new friends.
Alexandra Utpadel brings a perfect balance of wacky humor and kind heartedness to Gertrude McFuzz with a powerful voice that excels on her songs. Kathlynn Rodin is fun, with a bright singing voice, as Mayzie, a bird who tricks Horton into sitting on her egg to keep it warm while she goes on vacation, while Quincy Janisse, in the small part of the Sour Kangaroo who doubts Horton's belief in the Whos, adds pops of sass to the show. The entire cast does well in bringing the many beloved Seuss literary characters to life.
I've seen numerous productions of this musical, but Theater Works' Seussical rises to the top of the list due to how Aiken and his cast and creative team expertly instill the production with the heightened playfulness and sense of imagination that are a major component of the Seuss books. Those elements, plus the enormous heart at the center of the story, make this production of Seussical an energetic, colorful and crowd-pleasing hit.
Seussical runs through July 30th, 2017, at Theater Works at 8355 West Peoria Avenue in Peoria AZ. Tickets can be ordered at theaterworks.org or by calling 623-815-7930.
Directed by Brett Aiken