However well-intentioned, when the musical melange of various Dr. Seuss stories opened in December 2000, the New York press went right for the show's softer parts. Sealing its fate was New York Times critic Ben Brantley, who dismissed the show as a "hypercheerful narcotic" and a "force-fed hybrid" that inspired only "numbness." The consensus among his peers was that a show more befitting a children's theater had been grotesquely puffed up like a blowfish for $75 a peek.
Even Flaherty admits that it didn't work. He told me last week, "It's the one that got away."
What went wrong on Broadway has been delightfully and energetically remedied at the Coterie Theatre, where a new Seussical is making its U.S. premiere in Kansas City as the beast it probably should have been from the get-go: a show for young audiences. With Ahrens and Flaherty's enthusiastic support -- and the assistance of a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts -- director Jeff Church has deftly applied shears to the show's fuzzy hide. It's now a field-trip-friendly 70 minutes, and, with an exuberant cast that teems with talent, the trimming works swimmingly.
Gary Wichansky's set and Jennifer Myers Ecton's costumes immediately root the audience inside a Technicolor pop-up book, paying tribute to Seuss's quirky illustrations without overtly copying them. Introducing the show are the spry and slightly sarcastic Cat in the Hat (Kevin Lind) and his preteen pal JoJo, played by Gabe Goodman, who gives one of the surest performances you're likely to see from a sixth-grader.
The show blends Seuss characters from various books into a single plot with a few bungee cords attached. It largely centers on Horton the Elephant (Seth Golay, dressed toe-to-trunk in gray) and his discovery of the mite-sized community called Who, which is confined in a speck of dust on a piece of clover. Later in the show, though, his nurturing personality sets him up as a patsy. It seems that Mayzie La Bird (Stephanie Lynn Nelson) has gotten herself knocked up in a moment of lapsed vanity, and ceaseless egg-sitting is cramping her style. She convinces Horton to sit on her unhatched egg for what he thinks is an afternoon, then blithely flies off to holiday in Palm Beach.
All of these characters get solo numbers, but when the score requires a full chorus, the show employs two distinct trios: the snazzy and flirty Bird Girls (Jessalyn Kincaid, Julie Taylor and Mandy Morris), and their male (albeit primate) counterparts, the Wickersham Brothers (Milton Abel II, Anthony Bernal and Cameron LaBarr).
A dozen actors might have made the Coterie's playing area uncomfortably overpopulated, but Church's direction and David Ollington's witty choreography have the opposite effect -- in this case, more is more. The cast members seem to revel in their close quarters, giving certain scenes the necessary presence of a diverse (but not always in accord) community. In the oddly syncopated song "Here on Who," the residents explain the charms of their tiny town through the use of ingenious wind-up toys, designed by William Hill. They look like miniature cars of a circus train, yet they represent such parts of the town as its business district and a strip of high-rises.
As much virtuosity as this production offers, one can see why some New York grown-ups winced, but the cute show is not cloying here. And though it's campy at times, it doesn't stray too far from the sincerity it wears proudly on its sleeve. The Coterie's adaptation locates every ounce of its not-so-hidden charms. This Seussical, perfectly cast and enchantingly performed, sets the bar pretty high for children's theaters across the country, which will be staging the show in perpetuity. If they do half as well, Horton will hear both a "who" and a "wow."