Paging Dr. Seuss: Report to Red Bank for “Seussical”

An unscripted moment on opening night of Phoenix Productions’ “Seussical” revealed much about how the show was being received. Nearing the end, the Cat in the Hat addresses the audience rhetorically: “And you know what happened next?” he asks. With split-second timing, an anxious voice from the audience, weak in timbre but not in volume, responded for us all: “What happened?”  (Spoiler alert: Nothing bad happened.)

A dramatic Cat in the Hat (Dan Peterson) [Photos: Rich Kowalski]

          “Seussical the Musical” had an abbreviated Broadway run in 2000-2001 after receiving lukewarm reviews. Based on the works of Theodor Seuss (his real middle name) Geisel, the plot included strands of too many different Dr. Seuss stories. The musical score was overly complex, and at two-plus-hours, it over-taxed its target audience. Even lyricist Lynn Ahrens*, who also co-authored the book with composer Stephen Flaherty*, admitted the show needed pruning, which, once accomplished, created a perennial high school and community theater sweetheart, which the Phoenix Company has embraced with a thoroughly delightful production.

The less-complicated new version is built around a mash-up of  “Horton Hears a Who” and “Horton Hatches the Egg,” with fragments of six or eight other Dr. Seuss stories tossed in, which still makes for a wandering scenario. It must be said, however, that there are worse places to wander than through the Seuss canon. Thanks to Phoenix’s superior presentation, the digressions are more entertaining than distracting.

The Cat in the Hat and JoJo (Neddy Rossi) kick off the adventure

The play opens on a bare stage with a red-and-white striped high-hat upstage center. Young JoJo conjures up The Cat, whose Hat that is, and they are soon joined by the 25-plus ensemble for the opening number. “Oh, The Thinks You Can Think” sets the tone for the mischiefs and monkeyshines that follow, including, but not limited to, scenes in McElligot’s Pool, General Genghis Kahn Schmitz’s military school (“Solla Sollew”), a full-blown circus, Whoville of course, and…well, you get the picture.

And a bright and colorful picture it is. The creative team responsible for the spirited, well-coordinated staging and performances are at the top of their games. Director Corey Rubel, musical director Francois Suhr and especially, considering the number of youngsters on stage, choreographer Kelly Gemellaro keep the show in motion and in sync, supported by an equally adept trio of tech wizards. Alec Hackler’s flexible set provides the requisite levels, nooks and crannies; Meghan Reeves’ varied and colorful costumes capture the look and the spirit of the Seuss characters; and Anthony Calicchio’s lighting spills into the audience, drawing us into the action. (Who knew there were so many neons in the spectrum?)

The Bird Girls, Mayzie LaBird (Rachel Brown) and bashful Gertrude McFuzz (Alison Levier)

All the principals inhabit their characters without condescending to the material or, more important, to the youngest audience members. Dan Peterson is an ideal Cat in the Hat. Lanky and loose-limbed, he’s a friendly guide through the proceedings. How lucky we are that he sings “How Lucky You Are,” and his seemingly impromptu tap dance highlights the spiffy curtain call. Joe Ronga is a sympathetic Horton the Elephant. A full-size adult, he nonetheless projects child-like (not child-ish) sensibilities. His unwavering belief in the Whoville population is inspiring. (I was among those relieved when JoJo yelled YOPP loud enough to be heard.) A romantic relationship between an elephant and a bird is as hard to convey as it is to imagine, but Ronga’s Horton and Alison Levier’s wonderful Gertrude McFuzz pull it off. (Not to worry, parents; it’s platonic.) “Amazing Gertrude” is her signature number, and lovely Levier aces it.

Gertrude McFuzz (Alison Levier) and Horton (Joe Ronga) bond over Whoville’s clover universe.

As wanton Mayzie LaBird, who leaves Horton to sit on her egg for its whole gestation period, Rachel Brown is an alluring feathered femme fatale; her “Mayzie in Palm Beach” is seductive. Sour Kangaroo, played with gusto by Jenna Bitow, is a temporary villain. She reforms at the end, but not before Bitow’s vibrant gospel-worthy voice has its way with us.

The Mayor of Whoville (Andrew Behrens), Mrs. Mayor (Crystal Huau) and their JoJo (Neddy Rossi)

The Whoville clan is well represented by Andrew Behrens as the Mayor, Crystal Huau as Mrs. Mayor, and by sixth-grader Neddy Rossi as their son JoJo, who spurs much of the action, along with The Cat. General Genghis Kahn Schmidt’s scenes are still shoe-horned into the play, but if Bob Brown aspires to play The Major General in “Pirates of Penzance”, “The Military” number could be his audition tape. He’d be a shoo-in. And the trio of back-up Bird Girls that fly in and out – Sarah Coleman, Alexandra Pennington and Lisa Sandoli – rival the Pips.

The flaws are few and not significant. The repeated mantra “A person’s a person no matter how small” is a point well made (although hearing “persin” grates), but the inverse, “no matter how grown up,” also holds. By taking the material seriously without skimping on its antic qualities, producer Lindsay Wood and the Phoenix cohort’s “Seussical” will appeal to kids of all ages…and to former kids as well.

Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank NJ. Performances Fri Nov 17 at 8pm; Sat Nov 18 at 7pm; and Sat Nov 19 at 3pm. Tickets ($24- $34): 732-747-0014 or online at www.phoenixredbank.com

(*That’s Ahrens and Flaherty of “Ragtime,” “Anastasia” and others, including 1990’s “Once on This Island,” being revived on Broadway just this month.)

Blog, Community, Regional

Tennis, anyone? “The Last Match” off-Broadway

There’s a mind game we used to play in college built around someone finishing the sentence “Life is like a ­___” with a concept (film noir, say) or item (a coke bottle is one I recall). That game came to mind as I watched “The Last Match,” which is essentially a 90-minute response to “Life is like a tennis match.” Or vice versa. Granted, not the most challenging of allegories, but Anna Ziegler puts a neat spin on it in her play about a U. S. Open semi-final match between Tim (Wilson Bethel), an aging-out (he’s 34) American superstar, and Sergei (Alex Mickiewicz), a younger up-and-coming Russian phenom.

The play is set at that match and, in flashbacks, at various other locations. The match is played virtually set-by-set, with the running tally appearing on side-wall scoreboards. The players talk to one another, mostly in taunts, and both soliloquize inner thoughts that provide added tension and even influence the back-and-forth scoring. In their on-court stances, serves and returns, both Bethel and Mickiewicz look like actual tennis players; even though it’s in pantomime, it has the feel of watching an actual match.

From left: Zoe Winters, Wilson Bethel, Alex Mickiewicz, Natalia Payne

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Careful what you wish for: “Mutual Philanthropy” at NJ Rep

We like to think we can size up strangers in a first meeting, but we really can’t. Everyone is guarded for a while, with deep feelings and values held in check, at least until the atmosphere is safe.

That’s why I’m always amazed when I go into a new play knowing nothing at all about the characters and come out with insights into their behaviors, desires, fears, motivations, the whole package. In the case of Karen Rizzo’s “Mutual Philanthropy,” it took a mere ninety minutes. As well-acted as it is written, the play’s east coast premiere runs through November 19 at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

When struggling sculptor Lee (Joseph Carlson) and his working-to-support-them wife Esther (Vivia Font) are invited to dinner at the lavish home of  wealthy investment banker Charles (James Macdonald) and his neglected wife Michelle (Laurel Casillo), it is with the expectation that the hosts plan to purchase Lee’s ‘Reclining Man’ sculpture for a few much-needed thousand bucks. (The couples’ children attend the same grammar school in the gentrifying Los Angeles area neighborhood where they all live – in contrasting digs.)

Esther (Vivia Font) and Charles (James Macdonald) share a quiet moment

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Blog, Professional, Regional

Improved with age: “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”

Two things to know about George Street Playhouse’s temporary home on the Cook College Campus of Rutgers University: One is that the venue is temporary only in the sense that GSP will be moving back to downtown New Brunswick when the Livingston Avenue performing arts center is completed – in an estimated two years. In the meantime, however, the Cook Campus facility is comfortably sleek and technically up-to-date in all aspects.

The second thing is that the opening production, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” is a clear winner. Re-vamped by the creators of the 1996 original that ran twelve years off-Broadway (second-longest after “The Fantasticks”), the new version retains a goodly portion of the original with tweaks that make the whole enterprise fresh as the proverbial daisy.

“Love…Perfect…Change” is a series of vignettes, most musical, about relationships. Each scene is independent of the others, but a timeline emerges, starting with a first-date situation and progressing through courtship, marriage, child-rearing, etc. Joe DiPietro’s book and lyrics progress as well. Set to Jimmy Roberts’s engaging tunes, the earliest jokey material matures up to and including the penultimate “Funerals are for Dating” scene, which is an uncanny combination of comedy and poignancy.

From Left: Mitchell Jarvis, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, George Merrick, Karen Burthwright [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway, Professional, Regional

A likeable “As You Like It” off-B’way and a tasty Dinner Theater in the suburbs

There must be as many ways of creating the Forest of Arden onstage as there are productions of “As You Like It.” In director John Doyle’s minimalist production of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy at Classic Stage Company, you know you’re in Arden when the multiple globes hanging over the playing area glow green. That effect is enhanced by the light touch of the mostly young, buoyant cast, headed by spritely Hannah Cabell as Rosalind, Shakespeare’s longest female role by line count.

Beginning as a reading, with the ten-member cast grouped around Ellen Burstyn seated on a theatrical trunk holding the book, the play soon spills out onto the playing area. Burstyn, who goes on to play Jaques, stays seated, following along, keeping us aware that what’s unfolding is a play, a point that Shakespeare makes in several plays (“Shrew,” pointedly). The “As You Like It” characters often see themselves as actors, and at the end, the audience is invited to think of themselves the same.  Doyle’s vision unfolds over 100 continuous minutes, made possible by judicious editing that retains the play’s witty interlacing of disguises and mistaken identity.

Duke Senior (Bob Stillman) and Jaques (Ellen Burstyn) [Photos: Richard Termine]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway, Professional, Regional

A first-class revival of an American classic: “A Raisin in the Sun” at Two River Theater

There is little that I can add to the praise that has been heaped upon Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” virtually from the hour it opened on Broadway in 1959. Ms. Hansberry, at 29, was the youngest American playwright and the first African-American to win the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play of the Year. Her play has not only stood the test of time, it has become a revered classic. Reviewing a revival in Chicago twenty-four years later, New York Times critic Frank Rich declared that playwright Hansberry had “changed American theater forever with her first-produced play.”

What I can do, having seen the original, which cemented Sydney Poitier’s stardom, plus a 1995 staging at George Street Playhouse and the 2004 and ’14 Broadway revivals (with Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs and Denzel Washington, respectively), is to offer an assessment of the current production at Two River Theater in Red Bank NJ.

Deeply felt and superbly directed and acted, it is a triumph. If you have never seen the play or would like a reminder of its brilliance, get yourself to Two River before October 8.

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Blog, Professional, Regional