Redhouse Arts Center executive artistic director Stephen Svoboda was suffering near-crippling back pain last week. He was not there for the opening night of Seussical: The Musical, one of three components of the third annual District Festival.
Yet the mammoth production gave every evidence of Svoboda’s demanding attention, with 59 sets of dancing feet, 11 musicians and hundreds of costume changes in one of the smallest performing spaces in Central New York.
As the company prepares for broader vistas, including Carousel at the Mulroy Civic Center’s Carrier Theater in June, and then on to the remodeled Sibley’s department store on South Salina Street, Svoboda seemed to be reminding us again that the 11-year-old experiment in theatrical intimacy was never a limit on his exuberant imagination.
The full two-hour Seussical by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (better known for Ragtime) is seen less often than the truncated Seussical Jr. or Kelly Mitchell’s Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in The Hat seen last spring at Gifford Family Theatre. That’s because the full show draws on as many as 18 Dr. Seuss narratives, not all of which may have been recited at bedtime. That means young audiences might have some difficulty relating one sequence to the next, but Svoboda has worked for clarity as well as abundance, contradictory as they may sound.
Most necessary, of course, is the framing narrative character, the Cat in the Hat, played by a bearded Patrick Burns. The one Equity member in the large cast, Burns does double duty as music director of the show and, indeed, usually carries an electric guitar.
Although the most recognizable Seuss character, the Cat can be the most elastic from one production to another. When the original Broadway box office began to weaken, a series of celebrities took over the role and stretched it in different directions. This invites Svoboda and Burns to give us a slightly subversive Cat who takes the youthful audience into his confidence in his opening number, “Oh, the Thinks You Will Think.”
The youth most often opposite him goes under different names, first as The Kid and then as Jojo (David Griffith), child of the Mayor and Wife of Whoville (Ben Wells and Sammy Underwood). A seventh-grader from East Syracuse-Minoa, young Griffith arrives with plenty of stage experience to beat out the dozens of youngsters in the cast. Svoboda puts Griffith’s well-honed musical skills to good work, especially in “Lost in the Universe,” and as the only character in street clothes he often looks like the sanest member of the company.
Even though the Grinch (Jason Tarbox) makes a brief appearance, the most recognizable Seuss character is the hapless Horton (company regular Chad Tallon), whose elephantine proportions are implied by a Charlie Brown hat with big ear flaps. When loud-mouthed Mayzie Labird (scene-stealing Julia Goretsky) is abandoned by her lover, she doesn’t want to trouble herself with sitting on the egg long enough to hatch. The steadfast Horton, in greater self-sacrifice than he anticipates, takes on the task for her.
An outcast for his folly, as well as for trying to save speck of dust on a clover, Horton bonds with Gertrude McFuzz (elegant Robin Virginie) and the Sour Kangaroo (powerhouse Debra Thais-Evans).
Among the behind-the-scenes people that have to be thanked are set designer Tim Brown and lighting designer Chuan-Chi Chan for the faux naïf look of the production, not slavishly imitative of Dr. Seuss illustrations but expansions upon them. Add costumer Nikki Delhomme and puppet designer Morgan Kelly to that team.
As with other youthful choruses, director Svoboda has cast students from Arc of Onondaga, who are unobtrusively guided by other cast members.
Svoboda’s Seussical, which has sold out its remaining performances, was the only component of the District Festival’s opening week that the journalists could see. District partner Rarely Done Productions earlier announced Pippin for the time slot, then switched to the madcap review Forbidden Broadway. It is being performed at the Redhouse, but because it is classed as a fund-raiser, we wretches from the press are barred. Meanwhile, Appleseed Productions’ Moon Over Buffalo was slated for the company home at Atonement Lutheran Church. On opening night, however, artistic director C.J. Young cancelled the production because of “circumstances beyond our control.”
The District’s mounting of Moon Over Buffalo continues on Friday, May 8, and Saturday, May 9, 8 p.m., and Sunday, May 10, 2 p.m.; at Appleseed Productions’ home base, the Atonement Lutheran Church, 116 W. Glen Ave. For details, dial 492-9766.