TheatreworksUSA has returned to its home base at the Lortel with a joyful production of “Seussical,” the Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens tuner that led a notably tortured existence on its last New York visit. The moral — all Dr. Seuss’s stories have morals — seems to be: A musical’s a musical. No matter how small.
“Seussical” won many friends, as well as co-producers bidding for inclusion, when it was mounted by Garth Drabinsky as a workshop in Toronto in summer 1999. The potential blockbuster was summarily dressed and bedecked for Broadway with the best that $10 million could buy.
Too much, it turned out; the fantastic characters of the fantastical doctor were swamped by all the top-of-the-line stagecraft, much like a wind-scarred tree with an elephant sitting in its upper branches. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, and even show-doctor Rob Marshall couldn’t put Horton back together again.
This despite some whimsically appealing characters and a score that mixed some of the loveliest show tunes of the day with some of the swingiest. The Livent/Weissler “Seussical” opened at the Richard Rodgers in November 2000 and faltered like a flick-a-ma-whizz with a terminally inoperable wick, with all the fireworks reserved for offstage.
A drastically revised national tour hit the road, with what were apparently marginal improvements. The show has since been pared further for stock and amateur purposes. The version presented by TheatreworksUSA is whittled down to 75 minutes, which is one of the best things to happen to it. (The butter-battle subplot, with a tall general in short pants barking about, has most fortunately been cashiered.)
The other major change is physical; in place of tons and tons and tons of scenery — the flat drawings of Dr. Seuss transformed into all-too-realistic wood, metal and plastic — we have five red-and-white beach umbrellas (with no fabric atop) and one trunk-sized red-and-white box. That’s it, plus numerous fanciful props. (Egg-beaters, salad colanders and the like; the bird’s nest Horton tends is a translucent green swimming tube, the egg is a white soccer ball.)
The stripped-down script and production turn out to be just what the doctor ordered. Ahrens and Flaherty combine the two separate Horton stories — written 14 years apart — with the one-feathered Gertrude McFuzz (from “Yertle the Turtle”); the Cat in the Hat, Seuss’s most famous creation, serves as facilitator. This reduced version is content simply to tell the story, with all (or most) of those wonderful Flaherty and Ahrens songs carrying the action breezily along.
The children filling the house at the opening-day preview were raptly intent throughout, with a gleeful outbreak during the finale and euphoria during the “Green Eggs and Ham” curtain call.
The cast is uniformly enjoyable. Brian Michael Hoffman and Michael Wartella take the honors as Horton the Elephant and JoJo, the littlest Who. Karen Weinberg is lovable as the lovelorn Gertrude, while Kelly Felthous shakes things up as the Amayzing Mayzie. Shorey Walker oversees things as that Cat, while Ebony Marshall-Oliver scores with her several solos as the Sour Kangaroo.
Overall effect is of a bunch of kids (played by young adults) romping on a playground — which turns out to be a far more effective way to handle the satiric whimsy of Dr. Seuss than the laborious trial we sat through uptown.
Due credit should be afforded to director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge. She keeps things moving snappily — including the story, which is now as clear as A-B-C (or at least a Seussian A-B-C) — and maneuvers her large-for-Theatreworks cast through their varied and amusing paces. When they all get to dancing, the house literally shakes along. Dodge can’t take credit for the cuts and edits, which were made prior to this production, but she certainly makes the most of everything at her disposal.
Performance is accompanied by a full orchestra on tape; better than piano-and-drums, yes, but it does sound like it’s coming out of a box.
Flaherty and Ahrens began their professional collaboration in 1985 with a children’s theater version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” on commission from TheatreworksUSA. This new-and-improved “Seussical” — offered to New Yorkers gratis, thanks to the producing org’s annual free summer theater program — makes a happy return for the composers, and an even happier sequel to the troubled saga of “Seussical.”