When approaching the Julia Morgan Theatre Center at the premature hour of 7 pm on Friday night last, I was confronted by many miniature homunculi which caused me to gasp and grasp tight the hand of my companion. She reassured me that they were only children. I was not anticipating them. I don’t get out much, except to go to theatre, and thankfully they are seldom there since they make noise and fidget.
It was the Berkeley Playhouse—which I had hitherto eschewed for the above reasons, and out of a preference for tragedy and irony. And to make matters more dire, this was SEUSSICAL, THE MUSICAL, god help us all. But I had been invited by a creative colleague, so I held my breath, if not my nose, and deigned to attend.
For all my Grinch-like persona and curmudgeonly mien, I must unequivocally and highly RECOMMEND this production to everyone, regardless of age. The Broadway-worthy performances of the cast are the first reason. Indeed, the performances are so engaging that the rug-rats—probably a third of the audience—are for the most part quiet and rapt for the entire two hours plus.
The second reason is that Theodor Seuss Geisel’s doggerel is embedded in most every contemporary American’s consciousness: since 1950 his books have been read by Greatest Generation parents to their Boomer children, and I must assume the tradition has been passed down the generations. Behind the seemingly saccharine and simplistic plot lines and rhymes are a reflection of adult conundrums, models of compassion, and some curious world-within-world cosmic perspectives.
The casting and direction of Kimberly Dooley is inspiring. She may be the luckiest director around to have assembled this cast of perfection—almost as if drawn from the books themselves or from some Seussical central casting. Or she may be an incredibly inspiring director who helped mold them to this peak. Ms. Dooley’s choreography on an individual basis ranges appropriately from the flashy to the athletic to the comically emotional.
Benjamin Pither as Horton has a most pleasing, plaintive voice and molds himself into the elephant ears with a down-to-earth demeanor; he occasionally and naturally swings his arm to imply a trunk which is just enough. The emcee is William Hodgson as the Cat in the Hat; Hodgson’s limber and versatile movements combine with an expressiveness that was sort of scary personally, because Hodgson really does look and act precisely like my childhood remembrance of the character, appearing here and there and everywhere, and even morphing into “Satchmo”Armstrong when needed. Maizie, the fly-away mom who leaves the nest, is played by Sarah Mitchell. Mitchell, who shone in Shotgun’s “Norman Conquests,” has cornered the market on blasé irony, but who knew she has serious musical chops? Rebecca Pingree, who last played Cinderella for this company, plays Gertrude McFuzz, the bird with a one-feathered tail, who loves Horton; she steals our hearts, and her effortless vocal gymnastics make us wonder if we’re in NYC rather than BKLY. Nicole Julien as Sour Kangaroo completes the genres with a powerful gospel belt and a bad attitude…she, of course, is won over in the end.
The lead who played Jojo the night I attended iswunderkind Nandi Drayton. There is always something special about a child actor who is a seasoned pro at ten. The kind of talent, that, when she auditions, you can imagine the accompanist turning around from the piano, mouth agape. And I didn’t recognize she was a girl playing a boy which is the perfection of any breeches role.
Aerialist Kimberly Miller wraps herself “Cirque du”-style in two scarlet sash curtains, inverts, dangles, swoops and splits to our wide-eyed inhalations and oooo’s. There are no weak links in the cast, and everyone more than shines.
Songs by Composer Stephen Flaherty with lyrics and book by Lynn Ahrens, range from melodic and touching to laughter-inducing to rocking. Flaherty and Ahrens also wrote Once on This Island and Ragtime and have been nominated for 20 Tonys (winning best score for Ragtime), and two academy awards for the animated film musical Anastasia. The SEUSSICAL optimism is contagious and molded deftly from the writings, with memorable songs like “How Lucky You Are,” and the touching refrain from “Horton Hears a Who”: “…A person’s a person, no matter how small.” There is plenty of poignancy in their lyrics, and even a call to thinking large in “Alone in the Universe.”
The musical direction of Tal Ariel, who is new to musical theatre, has enabled these marvelous performances. A jazz, rock and blues pianist and teacher and commercial producer and composer, he has an outsider’s touch that infuses a realism to the music and a strong beat that moves the young actors. He treated us gray hairs to some pre-show surprises, featuring “White Room” by Cream as one of the warm up instrumentals; it was a breath of fresh air, and much better than some prissy and pretentious show-tune. He put a great band together, and they rock the house while supporting the singers. The first act, the night I attended, had a bit too much bass which obscured the lyrics—incredibly important to Seuss; but much to the credit of the sound tech and the band, they fixed it for act two.
Not all is aesthetic perfection. The ground plan of a laterally bisecting scaffold foreshortens the deep Julia Morgan stage and truncates much of the action by eliminating interesting diagonal movement. Too often a horde of an ensemble is lined up laterally on the stage. The stage pictures are most effective when five or fewer actors are in the scene. The set dressing of immediately recognizable flowers and fronds emblematic of the world of Seuss take us to that childhood place even in the preset. While many of the costumes are straight from the books, the clashing colors and stripes and patterns when crunched together in the cramped playing-space make the eyes recoil.
Used to be that the way children learned theatre was to act with adults, model their performance pon those pros, then do it their own way only better. The Berkeley Playhouse has revived this part of performance pedagogy, and the teen and child actors more than hold their own in accompanying their betters. It’s amazing, all the incredible art, talent, and schooling that exists here in this little city of less than 110K. And the Playhouse is quickly working its way to being counted as another Berkeley treasure as directed by the artistic sensibilities of Elizabeth McKoy and the executive and education expertise of Jerry Foust.
If you’ve got kids, don’t miss it. Like all good (and smart) children’s entertainment, there is as much there for Dad and Mom as for Sis and Bud. If you don’t have kids, but you were raised on Seuss, take a chance on this critic’s word and have a good time. I never knew what I was missing, and you’ll feel the same way, too.
These tidbits may ease any fear of cloying syrupiness to get you over the hurdle:
- While at Dartmouth, Geisel was caught drunk on gin with his cronies from the humor magazine and was forbidden to write for them as punishment—so he wrote secretly and signed his articles “Seuss.”
- He was a political cartoonist for the NYC Leftist paper “PM.”
- He was the Commander of the Animation Dept. of the First Motion Picture Unit of the US Army Air Force.
- He won the 1947 Academy Award for Documentary Feature for a study of Japanese Culture entitledDesign for Death.
- He won the 1950 Academy Award for Animated Short for Gerald McBoing-Boing.
- “In May 1954, Life magazine published a report on illiteracy among school children, which concluded that children were not learning to read because their books were boring. Accordingly, William Ellsworth Spaulding, the director of the education division at Houghton Mifflin who later became its Chairman, compiled a list of 348 words he felt were important for first-graders to recognize,and asked Geisel to cut the list to 250 words and write a book using only those words. Spaulding challenged Geisel to “bring back a book children can’t put down.” Nine months later, Geisel, using 236 of the words given to him, completed The Cat in the Hat.”(from “Wikipedia: Dr. Seuss”):
SEUSSICAL THE MUSICAL
Music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics and book by Lynn Ahrens
Directed by Kimberly Dooley
Presented by BERKELEY PLAYHOUSE
Playing through August 14th
JULIA MORGAN CENTER FOR THE ARTS
2640 College Ave., Berkeley CA