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Thursday, June 17, 2010 07:05 am

Cat in the Hat takes the cake

Seussical, The Musical, opens the Muni’s season, 60 years after it all began

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The entire cast of Seussical performing the opening act.
PHOTOS BY ERICKA HINE

Only through the lens of the late Theodor Seuss Geisle, better known as Dr. Seuss, can a chaotic menagerie of made-up creatures bring order and wisdom from whimsy and fun.

Filled with comedies such as that of the emerald eggs and ham, and tragedies such as a too-short tail and the battle for bread bit butter-side up, Seussical, The Musical, brings the characters of so many childhoods off the page, out of imaginations and onto the stage.

Showing at the Springfield Municipal Opera’s outdoor theater through June 20, the group’s season opener is all about having a good time.

Jakob Groeteke plays JoJo, a young boy who, with the aid of the mischievous Cat in the Hat, thinks “a think,” transporting him to a bright and cheery dust speck where his Whoville parents are unable to cope with his unbridled imagination. Hearing a cry for help from the speck as it floats by, Horton, the Jungle of Nool’s kindhearted giant played by Sean Michael Butler, swears to protect it – no matter what. Add a court of creatures in disbelief, a shy and lovesick girl-next-door, and a dazzling diva, and hilarity, of course, ensues.

“It’s pure imagination,” says director Mac Warren. “It’s absolutely for kids – kids . . . or old people who are young at heart, who are kids in their soul.”

Indeed, fun itself is the show’s greatest take-away. From a triple-tined trumpet to a squiggle of a sword, designers Melody Sheehan and Inez Berg’s props match the cartoon quality seen in Julie Kochman and Mary Young’s simple backdrops – on target with Dr. Seuss’ well-known illustrations – that are cleverly handled by a crew of blue-haired, red shirted “Things.”

The spectacle comes as the varied but detailed costumes, designed by Warren, Ronda Brinkman, Cindy Wall and Laura Lutkowski, first parade in ensemble just minutes after the show starts. Birds with glitzy headdresses and a rock star Raggedy-Ann redhead in a snakeskin sheath, among others, comprise the Jungle cast.

While the story line is necessarily scattered – lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty incorporate elements from at least 15 of Dr. Seuss’ books – it seems fitting for a musical paying homage to the man who invented Thneeds, the Grinch and Solla Sollew. Audience members may recognize references to or characters from stories including Yertle the Turtle, Horton Hatches an Egg, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Lorax, among others.

Morgan Fishburn, Zoey Zara and Kari Wilhelm as the Bird Girls.
PHOTOS BY ERICKA HINE

Silliness plus
Despite one or two opening night sound glitches, the songs of Seussical linger in minds beyond the final applause, much as the phrases in Dr. Seuss’ books do after a reading. As the story unfolds, JoJo’s feelings of solitude, sense of smallness and prevailing optimism parallel the emotions encountered in Horton’s tale. As the two characters connect, Groeteke and Butler weave their well-matched voices in a heart-warming duet, “Alone in the Universe.”

Other highlights include actor Jacob Deters’ multiple personality portrayals as the plot-forwarding Cat in the Hat. Without missing a beat, the energetic Deters transforms from a narrator to an Austrian jungle doctor and more.

Meanwhile, Stephanie Fahey with well-timed sighs, fidgetings and forehead crinklings provides an endearing portrayal of Horton’s secret admirer, Gertrude. And despite swarms of activity about them, Madison Kauffman as the glittering, self-centered Mayzie and Nattalyee Heather Randall as a bossy Sour Kangaroo command the audience’s attention with their powerful voices as they each put Horton in difficult situations.

While much of the show is pure silliness – a fact apparent as bodyless feet and hands march across the stage, it does come with a lesson or two. Warren points to Horton’s loyalty and even to the Cat in the Hat, who “made this huge mess, just an absolute mess, but he still came back and cleaned it up. He corrected everything and made it right.”

And as the Cat in the Hat sings Warren’s favorite song, “How Lucky You Are,” it highlights the pre-show reminder that the Thursday, June 17, performance is exactly 60 years after the Muni’s very first performance, which drew a crowd of 3,000 to see The Merry Widow.

This year, opening night of the season’s opening show – described by Muni president Gil Opferman as “Christmas in the summer” – brought out an audience of more than 900 people, a good number, Opferman says, in light of weekend rain.

“The joint is jumping,” Opferman says. “For a lot of people, once the Muni season starts, summer is here.”

John Sivak as the Grinch surrounded by the Whos.
PHOTOS BY DONNA LOUNSBERRY

Upcoming shows
Even as the Muni delivers Seussical, another cast and crew is preparing for next month’s show. On July 2 through 11, directors Doug Hahn and Gary Shull will lead Muni volunteers through performances of Into the Woods, a Stephen Sondheim musical that weaves together well-known fairy tales including “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Rapunzel” and “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Opferman says to expect a darker tone than that found in Seussical as the Brothers’ Grimm characters find out what happens after their wishes are fulfilled.

For the season’s third show, set for July 23 through Aug. 1, the Muni will take Jesus Christ, Superstar in a new direction. The musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice details the last episodes of Jesus’ life. Using the same story audiences are used to, the Muni’s version, directed by Laurie O’Brien, will have a “post-apocalyptic” feel with “modern, kind of road warrior” sets, Opferman says.

A production of Annie, directed by Steve Williams, will end the season Aug. 13 through 22. The musical, based on a comic strip, details Annie’s struggle to find her parents during the Great Depression and her encounters with a once-grouchy billionaire.

“It’s a very diverse season,” Opferman says. “Something for everybody.”

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.

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