‘Seussical’ gets another chance

Broadway adaptation of Dr. Seus is back after flop

There’s more than one way to skin a cat in the hat.

After tanking on Broadway, “Seussical,” Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s musical adaptation of the works of Dr. Seuss, will give New York another try. On July 19, family legit producer TheaterworksUSA will mount a free, monthlong run of the tuner at Off Broadway’s Lucille Lortel.

Only this isn’t the show Gothamites saw (or didn’t see) during its six-month run in the 2000-01 season. That version — which suffered bad reviews, designer and director changes, and the collapse of original backer Livent — has died, and three more “Seussicals” have risen to take its place.

The new drafts have been remarkably resilient. Dramatic licensing agency Music Theater Intl. reports that since it acquired “Seussical” in mid-2004, the show has been one of its most popular titles among nonprofit, stock and amateur companies. Between July and November of this year alone, there will be more than 100 productions of the full-length, two-act version, which has been heavily revised from the Broadway script.

“Seussical Jr.,” a modified show to be performed by children, will soon be appearing everywhere from Syracuse to Cincinnati.

And then there’s “Seussical TYA,” which adheres to the time requirements of the Theater for Young Audiences contract. Performed by adults in a scant 85 minutes, this “Seussical” jettisons several subplots and is geared specifically to youngsters. It’s the version coming to the Lortel, and it will be mounted over a dozen more times between now and December.

“In some odd way, I feel like this is the definitive version,” Ahrens says. “When we cut it down from the Broadway script to become the TYA version, we suddenly loved the show more. It seemed purified.”

The streamlined material guides the Theaterworks production, directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge. Instead of the glitzy design elements that got the Broadway production labeled “eye-searing” by the New York Times, the show now has an everyday aesthetic. It rains when actors shoot squirt guns, and Gertrude McFuzz, a vain little bird, adds “feathers” to her tail by tying shirts around her waist.

“This Theaterworks production is in keeping with what we had originally intended the production to be,” Flaherty says. “It lets the imagination fill in the gaps.”

But while they may be happy with the show, the composing team still frets about reintroducing it to Gotham. “It’s scary to think about it, because we were basically trounced,” Ahrens concedes. “And now here we come again.”

Financially, at least, the show can’t fail this time. It’s being presented as part of Theaterworks’ annual series of free summer theater, meaning individual donors and major funders like the Lucille Lortel Theater Foundation have already covered its budget.

And since the bulk of tickets are given to social service groups, full houses are practically guaranteed. Theaterworks managing director Ken Arthur says 18,000 seats have already been claimed.

Plus, this production has been heavily road-tested. Last season, Theaterworks toured it to 110 cities.

Most venues paid $7,500 to bring the show to town, which is twice what the company usually charges. But the financial risk for Theaterworks, a nonprofit company, is also unusually high.

“Seussical TYA” demands 12 actors, and Theaterworks productions usually have six. Its weekly running cost ($12,000) is 1½ times what the company usually spends, yet the average ticket price for the tour was $6.50.

“For us, this is a major undertaking,” Arthur says. “It has less of a profit margin. But ‘Seussical’ was still successful for us because it sold out everywhere.”

In this light, the Gotham production seems like an act of cautious optimism. Using the double cushions of the successful tour and the summer program funding, Theaterworks can test the waters for a commercial resurrection.

Of course, Gotham producers might be grinchy about giving “Seussical” another shot. “I’ve made a few phone calls to people who I’d like to see the show,” Arthur says. “Now it’s all up to the stars.”

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