There is more than one way to skin a cat – or, in this case, a Cat in the Hat. John Yap’s marvelous JAY label from England captures the bright, lively, nearly-floating sound of the Off-Broadway production of a musical that seemed satisfyingly full-throated and jazzy but somehow nearly symphonic when it debuted on Broadway.
The same score, with orchestrations only “adapted” rather than created from scratch, comes through on this disc as more fun and more in keeping with the spirit of Dr. Seuss than the original Broadway cast recording on Decca Broadway. The Broadway version had impressive big-bold charts from Doug Besterman. He’s the orchestrator who did the never-to-be-forgotten orchestrations for Maltby and Shire’s Big. (Who can forget the trumpet blast at the end of the addictive “Cross the Line”?)
Seussical came to Broadway in 2000 after the most persnickety postings from the newly empowered Internet observers/commentators/bloggers and some major re-working in Detroit during the out of town tryout. The vision of director Frank Galati and choreographer Kathleen Marshall had undergone a series of radical adjustments during the tryout in Boston which increased the “heft” of the show at the expense of its sense of whimsy.
Still, the score was simply delightful as you might expect from composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens (working on a conception of Eric Idle to musicalize Dr. Seuss’s creations The Cat in the Hat, Horton the Elephant, Lazy Mayzie, Gertrude McFuzz, the Whos and his universe of unique creatures from the grinch to Yertle the Turtle.) Even if some critics or chatters missed it in their concentration on being catty toward the Cat in the Hat, the original Broadway cast recording revealed a musical adventure to be treasured. So, what purpose would a new recording serve?
JAY’s Seussical documents the version of the show adapted for the “Theater for Young Audiences” series of the licensing house Musical Theatre International which reports that it has become “one of the most performed shows in America.” The recording has all of the dialogue (of which there isn’t much – and what there is is rhymed a-la-Seuss!). It is a single act version that scurries between high energy and comedy and simple emotion for just over seventy minutes. Four musical numbers have been eliminated (“The Military,” “The Circus McGurkus,” “The Butter Battle,” and “Havin’ A Hunch”) and the entire storyline of the military school run by General Genghis Khan Schmitz was dropped.
The production at Off-Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Theater was part of Theatreworks/USA’s Free Summer Theatre festival. It was directed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge whose wonderful staging of Flaherty and Ahrens’ magnum opus, the last great musical of the twentieth century, Ragtime, transferred from the Kennedy Center to Broadway last year. You aren’t likely to recognize any of the names in the cast, but the performances here are clear, chipper when required and thoroughly musical.
The orchestrations that Besterman prepared for the Broadway production which featured eighteen players on the Decca Broadway recording have been adapted by Bryan Louiselle whose many credits include a high percentage of projects for either young audiences or young performers. Among other credits, he’s the resident music supervisor and adaptor, arranger, orchestrator, conductor and recording producer for MTI’s youth-oriented programs. They, like the script, have been pared down but in the process brightened and lightened to create a delightful listen.
Personally, I’m delighted to have both of these recordings on my Theatre Shelf. But if you are limited to just one – I think you’ll get more enjoyment out of the JAY recording. It even includes the exit music – thank you John Yap!