I have no qualms about this. Under the banner of kids' entertainment, the Coterie Theatre trucks in sophisticated themes and honest truths; in short, few theaters think more highly of the audience. The Coterie assumes that you're bright and engaged, that you revel in art, that you're well on your way to becoming someone remarkable. (Upstairs at the American Heartland, where the shows are doled out like Flintstones chewables, the assumption is that you're nothing of the sort.)
Now, with the world premiere of Twice Upon a Time: The Lorax and The Emperor's New Clothes, a musical by Seussical writers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, I should again be laboring to convince you to check out the littlest grown-up theater in town.
Instead, maybe you should go fly a kite or something.
A children's show that's actually childish, Twice Upon a Time starts with the further taming of Dr. Seuss, whose Cat in the Hat is now a housebroken old bore. To pound genius into a new art form, you need either a second genius or an utter cipher. Ahrens and Flaherty are neither, and their journeyman show tunes fail the good Doctor. In the books, Seuss' rhymes are like wildly spinning atoms; at uncertain intervals, they smash into one another and explode. In these songs, they come out flat and strained.
Weighted with these songs, the production aims straight for earth. As a manufacturer named Once-ler lays waste to the Lorax's idyllic forest, Seuss' words flit by without emphasis. It's an Eden story without an Eden. The Coterie's craft people give us no gluppity-glup or schloppity-schlopp or factories or highways or Super-Axe-Hackers. The brown Bar-ba-loots in their Bar-ba-loot suits look like Build-a-Bears; they betray Seuss' inimitable designs. There's not even a thneed, the useless product Once-ler makes by chopping down Truffula trees. And — sweet Jesus! — other than a couple of weak projected images that are easy to overlook in all the musical hubub, there aren't any Truffula trees, the reason for the Lorax's existence.
A typical Coterie production could conjure all of these missing elements, suggesting them with shadow play or puppets. Here, though, the pace is too hectic, the band too loud, the clarity too lacking. We're asked to imagine too much, and we're given too little help. Only at The Lorax's climax, when a spotlight beams on a lone seed, does the story achieve any power.
But then, a mere 15 minutes after show's start, a set change kicks in and we're Holland-bound, leaving Seussland for the realm of Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's New Clothes. Without Seuss' poetry to strangle, the songs bounce more freely and the headachey pace lets up. With Seuss, we've had a cover-the-bases race through a beloved licensed property; now we linger in public-domain land, where a simple story can be battened up with all the filler the writers can conceive.
Fourteen-year-old emperor Marcus (played by talented everykid Evan Haas) yearns for the might of his father. Marcus is scrawny, more interested in reading than leading, and in a series of nicely realized scenes he doubts his fitness to be emperor.
Like many children of privilege, Marcus discovers that the quickest route to faking a fully formed self is clothing — the more happening, the better. Suddenly, a production that couldn't spare a stitch for a thneed turns lavish. For one sprightly number, as our wee emperor samples regal sashes and coats, we could be in the real world.
Soon, a swindler arrives. He's played, thank God, by Seth Golay, who nurses his thin character into something full-bodied. Seizing upon the emperor's vanity, the swindler tricks his way into Marcus' court, where he's promptly hired to whip up some "magic" clothes that will help with the hard work of emperoring. Golay's scenes snap — children in the audience that day, who'd been flagging beneath all the show tunes, perked up for him. They also stirred for the finale, just before Marcus parades about in his "invisible" clothes: the merest hint of nudity can cut through any doldrums.
Still, the problems continue. Loretta Pope and Damron Russel Armstrong break through in featured roles, but the rest of the ensemble has little to do but hit marks and smile. Important moments lack proper emphasis — most glaring is the key scene in which the swindler at last presents a bare hanger to Marcus as those "magic" clothes. The emperor's advisers — who already distrust the swindler — immediately pretend that they see them. It's a baffling moment: Their gut instinct is to pretend that finery drapes from a naked hanger.
Later, a peek at the press release confirmed my suspicions: The Emperor's New Clothes was, in Ahrens' words, "the first show we wrote that was ever produced — back in 1985!" And his Lorax was cut out of Seussical. Instead of an inspired double-bill, this is juvenilia and a DVD extra.
Cover your eyes, kids: Twice Upon A Time is strutting around bare-assed.