Monday, February 9, 2009

The Grinch does Seussical

There are some children's shows that delight both parent and child. Like Peter Pan. Or maybe Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Seussical isn't one of those shows.

And there's no question as to why - to an adult eye, the good doctor has obviously left the building. True, his crunchy advocacy of the small, vulnerable, eccentric and fuzzy has remained intact, as well as his scorn for conformism, militarism, and the malice of the lonely ego. But somehow all his sly satire has been drained away, as well as his tighter-than-a-Who's-you-know-what storytelling. To be blunt, in their attempt to stitch together several Seussian tales, the writers of Seussical have come up with a train wreck; it may be positive and empowering, but it's a train wreck just the same. And this is supposed to be the revised, focused version. I can't imagine what played on Broadway.

Andrew Barbato and Sirena Abalian go places in Seussical.

Still, I am duty bound to report that about five hundred little critics I saw the show with didn't really care. Note I said the show was not delightful for both parent and child. But for child alone, it seems to do the job; the kids around me were pretty happy with it as a parade of their favorite characters sans any coherent narration. If a random Who or Sneetch dropped by to say his most famous line for no reason whatsoever, well, they were down with that and it was awesome.

So the kids who saw Seussical liked it a lot; but the Grinch, who looked down his nose at it, did not. Or something like that. But you might find yourself thinking some Grinchy thoughts yourself as you recall the frisky reversals and bemused bits of wordplay (not to mention the signature meter and rhyme) that have been largely deleted from the show, and replaced with bland, uplifting doggerel and so-so pop numbers. But just look into your little Cindy Lou's bright eyes at moments like that and remember that you're doing your duty as a parent.

And it must be said that the good people at the Wheelock Family Theatre have done their best to keep this show from laying an egg, green or otherwise, and the solid cast goes through its paces with high spirits and resolve. I wouldn't call the direction or design actually inspired, but they're big and bright and get the job done. The sound system likewise is far from ideal, but the musical performances are generally strong. And there a number of very good acting turns.

Indeed, at the show's center is a real charmer: young Sirena Abalian can not only act, sing, and dance, but does so with a sweet self-possession that makes everything around her seem slightly fake and overblown (which it is). Still, many of the actors who dare to share the stage with her emerge from the encounter unscathed, and some even steal a few - well, if not scenes then maybe a few minutes of scenes. Young Andrew Barbato makes the Cat in the Hat more of a bemused Willy-Wonka-like impresario than a potent anarchic force, but he's got the polish and flash to hold our (and the kids') wandering interest. As Horton, a kind of double-player in the show (which fumblingly mixes Horton Hatches the Egg and Horton Hears a Who! with bits of other books) Kamau M. Hashim better matches his character's established persona, and turns in a lovely, gently-scaled performance. He's paired with two other local stars, the amusingly ditzy Jennifer Beth Glick as Gertrude McFuzz and the bold, bright Angela Williams as Mayzie La Bird, and there's more good, broad work from the reliable Peter A. Carey as General Genghis Khan Schmitz.

So perhaps there's something in Seussical even for those old enough to remember when Oh, the Places You'll Go! was as young as its current readers. But I'm sorry to think of all the places Seussical could have gone, but doesn't.

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