The Cat is All That

by James MacKillop - Thursday, October 17th, 2013
S.U. Drama scores a Whoville hit with Seussical: The Musical

Some directors bring more authority to their work than others. Thirteen years ago, then dancer David Lowenstein appeared in different manifestations of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ Seussical: The Musical as it made its way from workshopping in Toronto to a Broadway opening. He was one of the mischievous-monkey Wickersham Brothers who steal Horton’s clover, and the role was written to fit him. Citing this is not mere trivia or vanity. Partially because of the chicanery of the original producers, the two-hour Broadway Seussical was less than a hit. That version is hardly seen these days. Lowenstein wants to get that one right and give you the unusual chance to see it in this production from the Syracuse University Drama Department.

A truncated, 80-minute version titled Seussical Jr. has become one of the most frequently licensed shows for school and community theater groups, but Flaherty and Ahrens, who also wrote Ragtime, were thinking of something bigger. Their version has 26 numbers, many of them calling for the entire company of 21. They were contemplating a possible rival to The Lion King.

A top local musical theater company like Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse is unlikely to take on Seussical, as much for its checkered box-office history as the demands of gymnastic-exercise production numbers. Only a university company with access to the professional resources of scenic designer Ann Beyersdorfer, costumer Meggan Camp, lighting designer Alex Koziara, sound designer Katherine Walters and musical director Brian Cimmer is going to be able to pull this off.

Stylistically, the concept is pseudo-simple. A framing narrative begins with the entire cast in teen street clothes bullying the tiniest and most androgynous member, The Kid (Raven Gabrielle Perez). He/ she is rescued by a very tall Cat in the Hat (Robert Axelrod), who sings, “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think.” Reflecting its roots in workshop, the show’s most visible props are a rolling platform, scaffold and ladder. The identities of several zoomorphic figures (birds, the kangaroo, cats, fish) are implied by costumes or small props. The leading character of Horton the elephant (Ben Odom), for example, wears a gray, visored, ear-flapped snow helmet that might have also been worn by Ralphie in A Christmas Story. But with costume changes into ever more colorful duds for so many numbers, you realize there are several hundred garments in the wings, ready for a quick change.

Ahrens and Flaherty’s book for Seussical draws on as many as 18 Dr. Seuss narratives, not all of which members of the audience will have read with equal frequency. Few, for example, are likely to remember the anti-military subplot of colorful if bombastic General Ghengis Kahn Schmitz (Reid Watson), who pops up in the middle of the first act. We fully expect the Grinch, whom Robert Axelrod delivers in the second act. He’s the Cat up until this moment, but just by sucking in his cheeks he gives an approximation of the bestknown cartoon face in the Seuss corpus.

College drama department directors are limited by the number of students who happen to be in the program, but Lowenstein scores big (literally) with several students, starting with Tommy Tunesized Axelrod as the Cat in the Hat, who is the show’s narrator, outside observer and nudge. In many productions The Cat is played by a woman, famously Rosie O’Donnell. But Axelrod’s lithe height and rubbery limbs make you feel no one else should essay the role, especially when coupled with diminutive Raven Gabrielle Perez, who shows up again as Jojo, child of the mayor of Whoville.

At the center of the divergent and digressive action is the familiar story of the protective, shy elephant from Horton Hears a Who! While bathing in the Jungle of Nool, Horton perceives a strange noise coming from a speck of dust. His attempts to save the speck by placing it on a clover are met with derision. This is a big theme in Dr. Seuss as well as the show. People who are benign and generous can be expected to pay a price for their virtue. Except for outcasts at odds with the crowd. In this case it’s neighboring bird Gertrude McFuzz (Sydney Patrick), who feels self-conscious because her scrawny tail has only one feather.

Horton bonds with other outcasts.

After he deals with the threatened mayor of Whoville (Taylor J. Chaskey) and his wife (Maggie Randolph), he is more drawn to their son, who has been warned not to Think any Thinks. Horton’s duet with Jojo, “Lost in the Universe,” is one of the most plaintive and moving numbers in the show.

More often the show is driving and upbeat, with all-company production numbers choreographed by Andrea Leigh- Smith. The most striking of these is the first act’s “It’s Possible.”

Unlike Gertrude, another bird struts around with a lollapalooza of a tail. She is Amayzing Mayzie (Jonalyn Saxer, the tallest blonde in the cast), a dazzler with a gift for mischief. She’s just been abandoned by a lover who left her with an egg, and she begs Horton to sit on it so she can take the afternoon off. Once he agrees she flies off and we never see her again.

For all the attention that necessarily goes to the Cat and Mayzie, Ben Odom’s intensely underplayed Horton sustains much of the show, along with Sydney Patrick as his love interest Gertrude. And without fitting her into the anfractuous story line, big-voiced Emily Zinski also scores as Sour Kangaroo.

It makes no difference that Seussical is sometimes hard to follow. It looks and sounds magnificent and comes out happily at the end.

This production runs through Sunday, Oct. 20.