Since Dr. Seuss’s very first children’s book, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (written way back in 1937), kids have grown up with the good doctor.  Who among us hasn’t read (or had read to us) Dr. Seuss classics like The Cat In The Hat, Horton Hears A Who, or Horton Hatches The Egg?  With so many Dr. Seuss fans of all ages all over the planet, it’s no wonder that Dr. Seuss eventually made it to Broadway. Seussical (The Musical), with songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, debuted on the Great White Way in 2000 and since then has gone on to considerable success in regional and children’s theater companies across the country.

Civic Light Opera Of South Bay Cities has picked Seussical The Musical as its holiday offering for 2009, and a terrifically performed production it is.

Ahrens and Flaherty’s book takes most of its multiple plot threads from the three Dr. Seuss classics mentioned above, making for one of the most “plot-dense” Broadway shows in memory.  A bit too many threads, in my humble opinion, but with some great tunes by the pair who wrote Ragtime and Once On This Island, imaginative choreography by Heather Castillo, and a cast made up of some of L.A.’s finest performers, CLOSBC’s Seussical is a sure bet to entertain kids and adults alike.

The opening number (“Oh The Thinks You Can Think”), led by none other than The Cat In A Hat himself, sets up the show’s cast of characters including “an elephant up in a tree” (Horton), “a person too tiny to see” (JoJo Who), “a bird with a one-feather tail going on an adventure down a dangerous trail” (Gertrude McFuzz), “a bird who flies off on a spree” (Mayzie La Bird), “a kangaroo sour as can be” (Sour Kangaroo), and “a general crazy for war” (General Genghis Khan Schmitz).

As the show progresses, Horton not only hears a Who (and promises to protect the inhabitants of the smallest planet in the universe) but also hatches the egg (as a favor to the jilted Mayzie, off for a vacation in Palm Beach). JoJo, the boy whose “thinks” have aroused the ire of his parents and teachers, is sent off to military school and eventually to a war fought between those who eat their bread butter-side-up and those who eat it butter-side-down.  Gertrude, who fears that her single pathetic tail feather is the reason that Horton has never noticed her, seeks medical help from Doctor Dake.  Horton is captured by hunters with dastardly plans on their minds. And that’s just Act One!

If that’s a bit too much of a good thing, even for a Broadway musical, and if the huge cast of characters makes it a bit difficult to become emotionally invested in any one in particular, that doesn’t prevent Seussical from amusing and educating at the same time.  Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) was a man far ahead of his time in advocating tolerance, peace, and environmental protection, progressive ideas which make their way into Seussical. For example, Horton’s efforts to protect the Whos stem from a belief that “a person’s a person no matter how small” and the butter-side-up/down conflict illustrates just how absurd war can be.  Seussical is a show that parents can take kids to and talk about on the way home.  And it’s a lot of fun to watch—regardless of your age.

Stephanie A. Coltrin, directing with her accustomed flair, has cast a company of triple-threats who simply couldn’t be better, beginning with Harrison White in the role of a lifetime, entertainer/storyteller extraordinaire The Cat In The Hat. Besides narrating the tale and standing in for numerous characters (including Doctor Dake and Oprah Winfrey), White gets several show-stopping numbers (“How Lucky You Are,” “Havin’ A Hunch”) which allow the Ovation winner to once again prove himself a showman par excellence.

In Horton The Elephant, Sam Zeller finally gets a role that permits the musical theater star to show a softer, gentler side than Judd Fry or Jean Valjean. He acts the part with warmth, lovability, and charm, and gets to sing the show’s two loveliest songs, “Alone In The Universe” and “Solla Sollew,” with those golden Zellar pipes. 

White and Zellar are supported by an all-around sensational cast.  John Dombek Lindahl (JoJo at the performance reviewed here) is a swell kid actor/singer/dancer who wins hearts from his first entrance. Jessica Gisin is a sexy, saucy, curvaceous delight as the full-of-herself Mayzie La Bird, Paula Chimene Jiles belts to rival Aretha as Sour Kangaroo, and Annie V. Ramsey couldn’t be more adorable as Gertrude McFuzz.  Gary Lee Reed gets many laughs as war-crazy General Genghis Khan Schmitz, and Jason Webb and Janet Arnold Clark (the Mayor of Whoville and Mrs. Mayor) do tip-top work under wigs and makeup that make them virtually unrecognizable.

Castillo’s nifty choreography, created from scratch for this production, captures the stylistic quirkiness of the Dr. Seuss illustrations on which it is based, and is performed by some of the best dancers in town. Travis Davidson, Ron Kellum, and dance captain Karl Warden (as The Wickersham Brothers) are Broadway-caliber talents whose dance moves never cease to thrill, and they are surrounded by some of the best dancers in the Southland.

Seussical has its very own girl group, the Bird Girls (Janelle Dote, Stefanie Miller, and Melissa Mitchell) who pop up from time to time to sing backup, Supremely.  Other Dr. Seuss characters who make brief appearances are Yertle The Turtle (Leland Bernett), judge at Horton’s trial, and the Grinch (Jordan Delp), who gets his very own number, “The Grinch Carved The Roast Beef,” added after the Broadway run.  (Both performers do top-notch work.)

Rounding out the cast are Dane Biren, Meki Blackwell, Hannah Bornstein, Kyrsti Chavez (Baby Kangaroo at the performance reviewed here), Craig Donnelly, Jasmine Ejan, Juan Guillen, Jessie Lee, Patrick Loyd, Heather Lundstedt, Emily Moffat, Mike A. Motroni, Mark Oka, and Armando Yearwood Jr., doing stellar work each and every one.

Daniel Gary Busby conducts the CLOSBC Orchestra (as good as it gets), and survives an attempt by The Cat In The Hat to take over his baton.  J. Branson’s set design and George Bacon’s costumes, created originally for Musical Theatre Of Wichita, are colorful and Seussical.  Darrell J. Clark’s lighting is richly hued, though I found the production too dimly lit for my tastes. John Feinstein’s sound design is crystal clear, as always.

With countless A Christmas Carols and similarly “December” shows providing ample Christmas-specific entertainment for those in search of theatrical holly and ivy, theatergoers looking for holiday fun of an alternative sort can do no better than to catch Seussical.  After all, it’s not every Christmas you can spend with a Cat (in a hat), a boy with a head full of “thinks,” and an elephant who hatches an egg!

CLO of South Bay Cities, Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Boulevard, Redondo Beach.

–Steven Stanley
December 8, 2009
                                                                                     Photos: Alysa Brennan

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