Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Seussical Review

Okay, it's time for an art post. Actually, since I don't have a lot of time, I'm basically going to repost this from an e-mail I sent to my family. I have not edited this much for prettiness, but hopefully the excess of excitement will come through to cover that deficiency.

Caveat: I am not a professional theatre critic. Actually, technically, as of this very moment I'm not a professional anything. But I do know a thing or two about theatre, and in any case, you don't have to be a professional critic for people to find your thoughts valuable. So hopefully some people will find this valuable.

This post is to review Seussical, Berkeley Playhouse's first production, which is showing at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley now through December 2. Short version, for those who trust me enough to do what I say: go see it. Now. Don't wait for Thursday. Don't accept any excuses like "there's no show scheduled for today" or "the cast and crew aren't here today." You go there, take whoever's in the building by the throat, and demand that they get the cast and crew there so you can see this show.

Longer version, for those who trust me enough to read my walls of text: I got to attend opening night, and that was a really good show. I've been wanting to review it since I saw it. So I am.

Seussical's plot is based on Horton Hears a Who, the story of our favorite faithful and honest elephant who discovers a tiny world atop a dust speck that only he (by virtue of his keen elephant ears) can hear, and his attempts to save the dust speck from disbelieving bullies in the Jungle of Nool. It also weaves in (and reimagines) elements from Horton Hatches the Egg, "Gertrude McFuzz," The Butter Battle Book, I Had Trouble In Getting to Solla Sallew, The Cat in the Hat, and a number of other Seuss stories.

The show flopped on Broadway, and if you listen to the soundtrack and look up some pictures online I think you can see why. The material is good (the songs are quite catchy, there's plenty of wit in the book, etc.) but schizophrenic. It doesn't know what it wants to be. Musically it bounces around from torch songs to rock to swing to gospel to Broadway. Thematically, it wavers between being a celebration of Seuss' works and being a celebration of childhood imagination. Material like this needs a firm hand to bring it line, which is just what director Kimberly Dooley and her team have brought to the show (side note: this will be the only full name in this post. Thayet pointed out that there might be Actors' Equity Association rules relating to reviews or something, and we'd hate to get anybody in trouble. If you're reading this out of professional interest, it shouldn't be hard to Google any of the names involved, or pick up a program from the show. Personally I don't see what the AEA can do to me, who isn't in privity with it, or to any of these actors, none of whom have a relationship with me. But just to be safe, first names only from now on. Oh, and fie on unions who think their members work for them).

I am fairly certain that the Broadway version erred too much thematically on the side of being about Seuss. The trouble with that is that Seuss' books are basically all moralizing fables told by a man with a pronounced leftist bent, which is hardly the stuff of a Broadway smash hit. And, as the Mike Myers Cat in the Hat demonstrates (and as the Jim Carrey How the Grinch Stole Christmas demonstrated before it), Seuss' worlds just don't translate that well to live action. Trying to translate the work of a cartoonist into actors in cat suits just makes the show feel like it's trying to translate Seuss for the sake of trying to translate Seuss, which is also hardly the stuff of universally appealing theatre.

This production of Seussical avoids all those mistakes by focusing essentially on what Seuss means to people, especially kids. The books themselves may be moralizing fables, but to a kid they represent imagination, the fantastic, the wonder of "possible." Kimberly's show is actually the story of JoJo, a regular little boy, who imagines the entire story of Horton with the help of the Cat in the Hat, whom he also imagines, and then imagines himself into the story as a little Who boy on Horton's dust speck whose overactive imagination gets him in trouble but ultimately saves the day. I have no idea how much of this frame story is in the original material or not, but it's just what the production needs to take it from catchy but schizophrenic (ho-hum) to fabulous.

For instance, none of the characters are in animal suits. Horton the Elephant is really JoJo's real-life buddy the neighborhood recycling man, and his baggy coveralls inspire JoJo to imagine him as an elephant. The Cat in the Hat is really a fast-talking businessman JoJo has seen somewhere, who turns into the fun-loving prankster that runs the show. And so on and so forth. The only costumes that are actually trying to mimic animals are the fish costumes in "McEligott's Pool," which is appropriate because that song is sung by JoJo the Boy imagining himself as JoJo the Who, imagining that he is fishing in his bathtub, which is connected via underground river with the sea.

The set also does not try to recreate Seuss' worlds, although it takes some heavy inspiration from the books in certain elements. Apart from some dressing (e.g., you can't have Horton hatching the egg if there's no tree for him to climb up) it's really just a series of platforms. I was most impressed by the way Kimberly directed this show. The set is split between the planet of Who (the dust speck) on stage left and the Jungle of Nool on stage right, with the lower area center used for various effects. The Jungle of Nool is really quite simple in design but the actors use it most adroitly as a kind of a jungle gym. The levels on the Who side of the stage, which is really not that different architecturally from the Nool side of the stage, are used in quite a different fashion in order to create the impression that there's more space over there than there really is (in fact the actors are quite confined, but Kimberly manages to use her levels in a way that conveys the impression not only of all of Whoville but all of their dust speck as well. Really, her staging is most impressive).

The Cat in the Hat is played a gentleman named Bill, who is a real gem of a find. The Cat's role in this show actually bears fairly little resemblance to the role he plays in his titular books (in fact, they excised the one number that recreates The Cat in the Hat, which in my opinion was a good choice because compared to the rest of his material it simply feels tacked on). He's essentially the embodiment of JoJo's imagination, and runs the show, even sometimes getting JoJo in trouble - a clever motif in a show about childhood imagination (who really runs the mind of an overimaginative child? The kid? Or does his imagination have a mind of its own?). He pops up throughout the show as if by magic, making things happen and playing about a dozen cameo roles. All of this requires the genius of a really mercurial character actor, and Bill is just that. He has a masterful command of his body and his voice that lets him morph between the Cat's various characters with startling abruptness.

Horton, our hero, is probably the most like his namesake character of any in the show. He is faithful and honest and plain, and what others mistake as simpleness is really just an abundance of kindness. Horton simply doesn't have a selfish bone in his body, and he's hurt by the bullies' torment not so much (I think) because he's being tormented as because it distresses him deeply to see people being mean. Brian, who plays Horton, has all of this down to a T. Brian manages to make Horton lovable without making the mistake of turning him into an adorable caricature. Brian's Horton is lovable by sheer dint of goodness rather than cuteness (which is an important distinction, because that's precisely what motivates Gertrude McFuzz's romantic interest in him). He also manages to convey the impression not of an elephant but of a recycling man whom a kid has imagined into an elephant, which I must tell you is some trick. And his ability to relate to inanimate objects (i.e., his dust speck) is the closest thing I've seen to computer animation on stage since ... well, ever.

The character of Gertrude McFuzz has been transformed from the vain, image-conscious bird in her eponymous short story to Horton's plain, overlooked next-door neighbor (in fact JoJo's family's cleaning woman, who, we may presume, has had a crush on the recycling man for some time). She is played to hilarious effect and with perfect comic timing by Rebecca. Gertrude is an important character thematically, and Rebecca's Gertrude is a goofy, klutzy, desperate-to-be-noticed joy to watch.

Gertrude's "friend" Mayzie, the mother of Horton's egg, is played by a woman named Julie. I think it's clear that Mayzie and Gertrude are friends, but they don't exactly have a healthy friendship of equals. Julie's singing was a bit too free at times (disconnecting her from the orchestra), but she has arguably the best physical performance in the show. She's sexy and showoffish and blithely ignorant of how offensive her self-centeredness can be, and she manages to do all of this while moving like a bird, right down to the attitude of her head and the focus of her eyes.

The role of the chorus is filled by three bird girls and the three Wickersham brothers, who are monkeys. The bird girls alternate between narrators and Mayzie's back-up followers/singers and get the most interesting harmonies in the show. Some of these are quite tricky, and the bird girls managed to navigate them with only one or two slip-ups, which I thought was impressive. They also have an abandon to their ridiculous physicality (both as birds and, in one song, as fish) that manages to sell it out of the realm of the ridiculous altogether. The Wickershams are among Horton's primary tormentors, and the guys playing them have really excellent movement. There's nothing especially monkey-like about their costumes taken by themselves, but when you pair the costumes with the guys' movements the monkey aspect snaps quite startlingly into focus in a way that is sharper than either the costumes or the physical performance could create on its own. The role of chorus lead (and the leader of the bully gang) is filled by the Sour Kangaroo, played by a Japanese woman named Anna channeling Angry Black Woman. You wouldn't think that would work, but it really does. At the performance I went to I felt like Anna's balance was low (she might have just been singing too softly, but the intensity of her Angry Black Woman physicality suggests otherwise), which was unfortunate, but she makes a great villain for the piece - mean enough to inject some conflict into the show, but sassy enough to be really fun to watch.

One character who is not a villain but could be (mistakenly) turned into one is General Genghis Khan Schmitz (aka the crazy homeless guy on the corner), to whose military academy JoJo is sent by his desperate parents. Thomas, the actor who plays Schmitz, definitely has the crazy homeless guy aspects of Schmitz down pat. Personally I would have translated more of that into his military persona; the material seems to me to ask for Schmitz to be kind of a caricature (because he's slightly unstable and based on a crazy guy) of an 1880s British colonial officer who thinks of the military as primarily a kind of rough-and-tumble character school for young boys alternating with a Parris Island drill instructor, all without realizing that the military life involves, you know, people shooting at you. I don't know if Kimberly disagrees with that vision, or Thomas does, or both, but Thomas is still a lot of fun to watch. In an excellent example of the subtext at which this show excels, he manages to give the character a real arc. There's a moment when he realizes JoJo isn't playing his game where his genuine concern for the boy really comes through, and I found that moment especially touching.

The adult cast is rounded out by JoJo's parents, Mr. and Mrs. Mayor, played by Phil and Tara. When we meet the parents they are in the awkward position of living the lives of (and being) strait-laced, Stepford-like Whos who love their son very much but don't know how to stop him from being so abnormally imaginative (or even if they should stop him from being so abnormal, which is a nice touch). The parents actually have comparatively little stage time, and little enough of that is devoted to their relationship with each other or with JoJo. It's a testament to the actors (and to the fantastic chemistry between them) that they manage to convey a whole familial dynamic primarily with subtext. A lot of aspects of this show are clearly better than Broadway, but Mr. and Mrs. Mayor especially stand out for mining the richness of their roles in ways that the Broadway cast pretty clearly did not.

Singing-wise, at this level of professional theatre I generally expect casts to be some combination of strong individual singers who can't do ensemble singing, strong individual singers who can't act and sing at the same time, or strong actors who are weak individual singers. Seussical's ensemble numbers were strong in terms of the individual singers' projection, tonality, and blend (though the bass part occasionally suffers in the projection department, perhaps because they seem to have only a single Wickersham brother on that line), and also exhibited a number of nice touches that one doesn't see consistently even at the higher levels of professional theatre. Chief among these "extras" in my book was the fact that the ensemble can actually sing in unison even in the more vocally complicated songs. This combined with their diction (I believe their assistant director Phil, who is a conductor by training, really hammered the lyrical parts of these songs) meant that I could actually understand all but one line in the show, and that one line is pretty much incomprehensible just because it's written badly ("Then over the desert, the desert of Dreze / and into the forest with thousands of trees, / past sneetches on beaches" - the bolded words are basically impossible to distinguish without looking them up, and the meter of the entire line is all off as well in a deliberate effort to preserve the integrity of the words, which are lifted directly from Seuss).

Another really impressive "extra" on display in both the ensemble numbers and the solos was that all of these actors can act while they sing (Horton and Gertrude especially impressed me along these lines). One of the things that I thought made this especially noticeable is that many of the songs are not written especially in character (i.e., there are either a number of different ways you could legitimately take the song, or the song is written in a genre that actually works against convincing characterization, such as the gospel numbers with the Sour Kangaroo, the Wickersham brothers, and the bird girls) and they're all sung as the characters would sing them. In other words, the vocal direction and stage direction are working unusually closely together in this show, and the cast has the combination of acting and singing chops to really take that direction.

This integration is overall, I think, the show's most unusual "extra." Everything about this show - the overall vision, the costumes, the set design, the stage direction, the vocal direction, the singing, the physical performances, the delivery of lines - it all works together far more tightly than is usual. The individual pieces are all really quite good, but the way the entire production erases the seams between its different pieces is what makes it a truly extraordinary product. In my experience this kind of integration is unusual even at the very highest tiers of professional theatre.

Seussical runs through December 2. If you're in the Bay Area, it's really well worth making the effort to see. It's the best piece of theatre I've seen in a long time.

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