There's a new and improved Seussical in town that's better than the Broadway original. Children will love that it asks them to use their imaginations. Parents will love that tickets are free of charge.
photo: Joan Marcus
Reviewed by Patrick Lee
The theatregoers who will most enjoy the new TheatreWorksUSA production of Seussical probably have no idea that the show flopped famously on Broadway about seven years ago. They weren’t born yet.
This new eighty-minute production, running at the Lucille Lortel Theatre for another month or so with all tickets free of charge, uses a new, neatly condensed book which is lighter by a handful of songs and trimmed of almost all peripheral business. The cuts help: the intertwined stories of Gertrude McFuzz (the girl bird with a one-feather tail) and Horton The Elephant (who talks to microscopic people who live on a dust speck) are much easier for pint-sized tykes to follow now, even if they don't know the stories from the Seuss books.
What's more there's a lively sense of playfulness in this production that was noticably lacking on Broadway. As directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, this Seussical has a rag-tag "let's put on a show" feel, mostly due to the new concept of setting the show in a playground and creating a visual environment that demands some imagination from the audience. For instance, an open trunk becomes a bathtub, and a blue blanket thrown over its side becomes the bathwater overflowing. Moments of simple theatricality like these are what help give this Seussical some moments of charm for the youngest people in the audience.
The Seuss characters take on an additional, reality-grounded dimension in this production. The Wickersham brothers aren't depicted as monkeys in the jungle as they were in the book, but as varsity-jacketed hip-hoppers, and the Sour Kangaroo is just a bossy little playground bully with a stuffed animal peeking out from the shirt of her schoolgirl uniform. And so on...mostly; the nifty concept isn't followed through consistently, which is a shame.
The cast of twelve (an ambitious number by TheatreWorksUSA standards) work hard to sell the show and most of them meet the challenge of performing for children without condascending to them. Particularly good are Michael Wartella as JoJo - he anchors the show by reacting, wide-eyed and awestruck, to the story's events - and Kelly Felthous, who plays Mayzie with more than a touch of Galinda-like bubbliness. There's also good work by Karen Weinberg: she sings well and she avoids overdoing the schtick as Gertrude.
Still, it has to be said that a leaner, improved Seussical is still Seussical, and the energetic cast and the thoughtful, dynamic production can't completely overcome the musical's problems. Audiences whose ages are out of the single digits will notice that the show's brand of liveliness is generic, rather than distinctly Seussian - there's too little of the author's quirky flavor in the musical. That's especially true of the songs, which don't even attempt to capture the delightful rhythms from the Seuss books. It also has to be said, just for the record, that this production uses pre-taped music rather than a live orchestra.
Revised to please the little ones more than anyone else, this new Seussical bests its Broadway predecessor by asking kids to tap into their own imaginations. By extension it celebrates the simple magic of theatre. Take the kids- you'd have to be a grinch of a parent not to.
Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher Street)
Tickets (212-332-0001): FREE; Distributed at the box office one hour prior to each performance; Limit 4 per person
Performances (through 8/17): Sunday @ 1:00 & 4:00; Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday @ 10:30 am & 1:00; Thursday @ 1:00 & 6:30
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.