To paraphrase the good doctor: Oh, the mistakes you can make!
The biggest blunder committed by the now-beleaguered creators of “Seussical” was probably the first and most forgivable: surrendering to the seductive but dangerous idea that the fantastical world of Dr. Seuss could be handily lifted from the page and transplanted to the stage. (The show began as a glint in Garth Drabinsky’s eye — perhaps not the happiest omen.) Of course anything’s possible, as Dr. Seuss himself would cheerfully remind us. But the delicate, deceptively simple aesthetic of Theodor Geisel poses challenges for adapters that require an inventive and rigorously refined approach to match his own — something far from the standard Broadway formulas applied, and in many cases reapplied, here.
The show’s troubles have been much discussed in the months running up to its delayed Gotham opening. They included the exit of the original costume designer, Catherine Zuber, set designer Eugene Lee and director Frank Galati, although the latter two retain program credit. Dark rumors also swirled that no one was particularly enchanted with David Shiner, who was not the top choice for the role of the Cat in the Hat.
And so “Seussical” arrives at the Richard Rodgers giving off the distinct fragrance of a two-ton, $10.5 million turkey — a nice Seussian image, really. Is the rap justified? Not entirely. The show is fitfully charming, and it’s likely that kids will not be particularly put off by its apparent and frenetically expressed desire to please all constituencies, or the disjointed meandering of its book. But it’s mighty disappointing nonetheless. The nonsensical verbal humor, crisp morality and sweet surprise of Seuss are all but smothered under a glitzy and graceless showbiz carapace.
Shiner, in fact, is quite appealing, a magnetically goofy chameleon who pops up in various guises throughout the show and is always welcome. Frankly, more of his elastic physical comedy and inspired miming would not be unwelcome, and his singing voice, while hardly cultivated, is adequate to the task of his peppy songs. Also neatly evoking the Seuss aesthetic, albeit in a lower key, is Kevin Chamberlin, a major asset in the central role of Horton the Elephant. He’s the sweet, calm center of the show — a goofy, shy kid who decided not to grow up — and his performance is subtly touching even when his material isn’t.
Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the composer and lyricist, respectively, also wrote the book, and they have confessed that the task fell to them by default when the musical got mired in the fallout from the Livent collapse. It conflates the two famous books starring the redoubtable pachyderm: “Horton Hears a Who,” wherein he valiantly defends a miniature Who civilization from destruction by his disbelieving fellow jungle beasts, and “Horton Hatches the Egg,” in which he’s duped into performing the title function by a selfish bird more interested in flying to Palm Beach for the winter.
But Horton’s dual dilemmas are just the beginning. To flesh out the material to fill a two-act musical, various other elements from the Seuss universe have been woven, not terribly gracefully, into the Horton story. The resulting traffic jam is the show’s fatal flaw. Economy is a crucial factor — perhaps the crucial factor — in the appeal of the Dr. Seuss books. His verbal whimsy and finely judged moralism are administered in carefully calibrated doses — small enough so that you can read the books time and again without tiring of them. “Seussical,” by contrast, is overstuffed with words, characters, songs, plots and cheerful admonitions.
So Gertrude McFuzz (Janine LaManna), the bird with only one feather in her tail, becomes Horton’s love interest; there’s a whole heap of Whoville plots, mostly centering on youngster JoJo and his wild imagination; the anti-arms race book “The Butter Battle” is alluded to in a couple of numbers; the Truffula trees are mentioned once; Yertle the Turtle makes a cameo appearance; and even the Grinch gets an entirely unnecessary look-in (possibly mandated by Universal, one of the show’s backers and the company behind the similarly overdone Grinch picture — which hardly needs the PR in any case).
Truth to tell, there are probably more words in Ahrens’ book and lyrics for this show than in all the Dr. Seuss books put together. Among them can be found many clever touches: “Green Eggs and Ham” as a boot camp march song sung by the soldiers fighting the butter battle, to name one. But in the end, focus is lost amid all the distractions, and the two simple central tales become one saga that threatens to rival the presidential race in complexity, longevity and fractiousness. (Aptly, it also winds up in a courtroom.)
Songs do most of the storytelling, and so here, too, overabundance is a problem. Flaherty is a gifted composer with an innate flair for ear-pleasing melodies and a deep knowledge of popular music styles. He seems determined to employ all of them in “Seussical.” There are soaring Disney-picture ballads (“Solla Sollew” is the sweetest); ragtime romps; a Carmen Miranda vamp for Mayzie the errant bird; vaudevillian jazz numbers for the Cat in the Hat; jaunty choral anthems, up-tempo and uplifting; even, inevitably, a gospel romp for the courtroom finale. Individually, many of the songs are catchy and appealing, but they eventually blur together in a woozy and increasingly formulaic haze. (I suspect they’ll make a better impression on CD, when Ahrens’ often apt and funny lyrics can be deciphered and the busy trappings of the production are forgotten.)
Compounding the musical’s conceptual troubles are major gaffes of execution. Visually, the show makes only minimal attempts to re-create the exaggerated contours of the Seuss universe and the idiosyncratic look of its fauna. The bright blue oval proscenia are pretty, and a few set pieces pleasingly ape the swooning architecture we all recognize. But almost no attempt has been made to suggest that the characters cavorting before us are fantastical creatures.
On the contrary: William Ivey Long’s slinky bodysuits and sexy getups leave little doubt as to the species of their wearers. Long is a talented designer, but he specializes in traditional Broadway sex and glamour, and was a singularly — even spectacularly — ill-advised choice for this show. My knowledge of the Seussian oeuvre is not infallible, but I do not recall the presence anywhere of leather-clad chorus boys. (Further enlightenment on this point is welcome.) Inventiveness — and, perhaps more vitally, a Seussian simplicity — are sorely lacking from Long’s incoherent work here.
The designer’s nadir coincides with choreographer Kathleen Marshall’s — and possibly the musical’s — in an embarrassing jazz ballet for garishly attired fish that seems designed to give solace to those in the audience who are already missing “Cats.” Elsewhere, Marshall’s own contributions are mediocre Broadway gyrating and hoofing; here, too, a chance to translate into three dimensions the unique energies of the Seuss books has been lost — a modern dance choreographer such as David Parsons might have worked wonders.
Indeed, the choices that went into the production were all sensible, safe ones — reactive rather than proactive, concerned with retaining the widest possible Broadway audience (both adults and kids) rather than capturing the special atmosphere of the source material. The results, not surprisingly, are lacking in the adventurousness and inspiration that breathes from every page of the Dr. Seuss books.
By most accounts those ingredients are likewise missing from Universal’s “Grinch” picture, and it grossed more than $150 million in its first two weeks of release. The challenge facing the producers of “Seussical” — and they include the savvy marketing specialists Barry and Fran Weissler — will be selling goods of the same questionable quality at a much higher price. After all, there are no bargain matinees on Broadway.