“Oh, the thinks you will find
Lining up to get loose...
Oh, the thinks you can think
When you think about...Seuss!”
So opens Children’s Theater of Madison’s current musical production, Seussical, running through March 12 in the Playhouse at Overture Center. This homage to Dr. Seuss and some of his most memorable characters, under the masterful direction of Brian Cowing, is a magical 70-minute ride that celebrates individuality, creativity, loyalty and letting one’s imagination run wild.
Every part of the show dazzles, from the whimsical costumes (designed by Monica Cliff) to the stage and set pieces (designed by Keith Pitts) that constantly transform, to the inventive and crisp choreography that keeps all 17 actors in constant motion. It is a fitting tribute to Theodore Geisel, one of the greatest writers in children’s literature, whose acrobatic wordplay and worlds of relentless invention have been a standard part of bedtime routines for decades.
The Seussical musical, by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (the duo who also created Once on this Island and Ragtime), was not always such a well-constructed celebration of the Cat in the Hat and friends. When it opened on Broadway in 2000 critics were not kind. Variety called the show “a two-ton turkey...overstuffed with words, characters, songs, plots and cheerful admonitions...smothered under glitzy and graceless showbiz.”
Happily, this retooled, more focused version gets it right. It begins with a classroom of students waiting to meet their new art teacher, who eventually reveals himself as the Cat in the Hat, played with explosive and playful energy by Sherrick Robinson. The Cat, in his signature striped hat and red tie, challenges these jaded, nerdy and too-cool students to put down their cell phones and really explore their imaginations. As the set morphs into mini-stages on wheels and fills in for many locations — a bathtub, a jungle, a circus — the youngsters are joined onstage by their Seussian (adult) alter egos, and creative chaos ensues. The Cat tosses glitter and snow into the audience. Monkeys form the coolest boy band you’ve ever seen. Fish swim around the stage and are tossed over the balcony. And we meet some familiar Seuss characters, telling stories that have both silly and sincere messages.
Shawn Goodman brilliantly brings Horton the elephant to life in touching vignettes about believing in things you can’t see — like the whole planet of Whos inhabiting a single clover — and making good on promises — when he babysits the egg of a careless bird who abandons her nest for a vacation in Palm Springs.
As the bird with the one-feathered tail harboring a big crush on Horton, both adult Gertrude (Mari Borowski) and her younger counterpart (Madison Uphoff) are wonderfully awkward and sweet with lovely singing voices. They are perfect foils for the flashy but fake Amayzing Mayzie, portrayed with sass, sparkle and a whole lot of pink feathers by Jessica Jane Witham and Emma Dias. Although the Sour Kangaroo makes plenty of trouble for poor Horton, Tara Martino and Jillian Sytsma do it with powerhouse, show-stopping voices and a big dollop of attitude.
As the kids transition back into their schoolroom world, storylines from their imaginary adventures dovetail nicely with lessons to be carried forward, imbuing this merry musical afternoon with meaning, just as Dr. Seuss does in his books.
Each moment of this fantastic production is brimming over with director Cowing’s boundless imagination and executed with precision and passion by the large, talented cast.
So don’t pause to wonder; make no delay! Grab the Vipper of Vipp and buy tickets today.