Doctor Seuss, or Theodor Geisel as he was know to his kin, was a rebellious soul. He fought, tooth and nail, for civil rights and social justice. He was a progressive who understood that adult problems were often caused by ignoring simplicity. In other words, adults create adult problems because complexity seems adult, somehow. He thought this was absurd, and he often posited this by using childish characters and simple yet truthful couplets. He understood the power of cliché. But for all this, he was childlike, never childish, never cartoonish. And Imagination Stage’s production of Suessical straddles these ideals.
The musical is mostly based around the story of Horton the Elephant, wonderfully played by Matthew A. Anderson, who portrays the naivety of Horton without being pedantic to its audience (made up mostly of children).
For those who don’t remember, the story of Horton, in short, is as follows: He’s a huge-hearted but fairly naive elephant who discovers the Hoos, a race of people who live in a microscopic town on a clover. Horton carries around the Whos and becomes friends with a young Who named Jojo, played, in the performance I saw, by Simon Diesenhaus, a sixth grader who held his own with Anderson and was easily one of the two best players on this stage (keep an eye on young Simon: he’s going places).
Peril strikes when some angry monkeys, likely riled up by the Sour Kangaroo, steal the clover and hide it. Meanwhile, Mayzie, a bird, has a short romance with a now-absentee bird who leaves her with an egg. She asks Horton to watch it “for an hour, maybe two,” before abandoning it. During all of this Gertrude (played touchingly by Shayna Blass), is aching for Horton’s affection, but she’s worried her tail isn’t big enough. So she goes to a doctor and gets a procedure to lengthen it. This fails to capture Horton’s attention, who only notices her when she acts selfless. They then raise what hatches from the egg together: an elephant-bird.
So, let’s recap: We have interracial marriage, absentee fathers, foster care, childhood abandonment and plastic surgery as themes here. Dr. Suess wrote for children, but he was never silly. He wrote for a reason.
The Cat in the Hat is our narrator here, played by Jamie Smithson in his DC debut. Smithson represents the other side of the childlike/childish tightrope: he plays the Cat with utter flamboyancy, sometimes with a lisp and always with a facial expression that attempts so hard to be goofy, it ends up being patronizing. The kind of face that the young mothers in the audience have surely told their children, “if you keep making that face, it’ll get stuck like that.”
Smithson is funny at times, and the Cat in the Hat wasn’t made to be a necessarily sympathetic character. He helped children dream, but he also taught them to be irresponsible. In this regard, Smithson’s overt performance did set him apart from the other characters — the sympathetic Horton whose golden voice keeps reminding us that “a person’s a person, no matter how small” or the desperate Gertrude, stuck in her private hell of wanting Horton to notice her “the way I notice you,” or even Jojo whose parents fear his overactive imagination even though he “still think that I’m not such a fool / As I sit here and fish in Magellan’s pool” (i.e. his bathtub).
The obvious should be stated: this is a musical for children. Generally, the kids were overjoyed by the production, especially when it incorporated the audience (such as when the monkeys shot a bunch of “clovers” i.e. fuzz-balls into the audience and Horton had to go collect them). But they sometimes seemed frightened by the Cat in the Hat. Again, this is the point, to a degree.
But next to Anderson’s honestly tear-wrenching portrayal of a misunderstood elephant and Diesenhaus’s world-weary portrayal of a child who eventually finds himself facing death (toward the end of the play, the monkeys attempt to destroy Whoville), it stands out as a little much.
Smithson is best when portraying other one-time characters (and nods to Dr. Suess’s other books), such as Yertle the Turtle (as a judge), a newscaster and a German doctor.
Closes January 6, 2013
4908 Auburn Avenue
Bethesda , MD 20814
1 hour, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $12 – $25
Saturdays and Sundays with additional shows added
The costumes, though, deserve not just mention but praise. Frank Labovitz, the costume director, starred in this production. From the Whos’ green outfits (50s-era suits, dresses and children’s clothes) to the Cat in the Hat’s iconic tuxedo and giant bowtie, every costume was a delight. Only Horton’s was plain, but it fit his character. A tie represented the elephant’s nose, asking the audience of children to imagine. Just “imagine what you can think” as the reprise keeps reminding us.
We can think all the thinks we can think of. And that was what Dr. Suess always wanted us to remember. Because, after all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.
Seussical . Music by Stephen Flaherty . Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens . Directed by Janet Stanford . Featuring Matthew A Anderson, Shayna Blass, Kirstin Riegler, Ayana Hardy, Jamie Smithson, Marieke Georgiadis, Jamie Ogden, Matthew Delorenzo, and Chris Wilson,Svea Johnson and Simon Diesenhaus.
Music Director George Fulginiti-Shakar, Set Designer Tom Donahue, Costume Designer Frank Labovitz, Lighting Designer Catherine Girardi, Sound Designer Christopher Baine. Produced by Imagination Stage. Reviewed by Travis M. Andrews