Standing on a whimsical set shaped like a big goofy hat, a little boy spies another hat, instantly recognizable to fans of Dr. Seuss books as that belonging to the notorious Cat in the Hat. “Now that is a very unusual hat,” the boy declares, and because this is the opening moment of Seussical: The Musical, the stage adaptation of several Dr. Seuss stories, the boy adds, “What could be under a hat such as that?”
What else could be under a hat such as that? It’s the Cat, of course, popping to life in the form of actor Andrew Taylor Sa, as the 35th season of SRJC’s Summer Repertory Theatre kicks off with a big, happy bang. Seussical, which hit the Broadway boards six years ago, enjoys its North Bay premiere as the opening show in SRT’s five-show season and runs in repertory with productions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A. R. Gurney’s Human Events, the classic Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and the semi-absurdist Kimberly Akimbo.
Featuring bouncy music, lyrics and book penned in part by Eric Idle (of Monty Python fame), the Seuss musical brings to life a number of the good doctor’s most popular children’s stories–primarily the Horton books with a helping of Miss Gertrude McFuzz and The Cat in the Hat, and a dash of Yertle the Turtle and Green Eggs and Ham worked in around the edges.
In the SRT production, snappily directed by Amanda Folena, the characters are brought to life with costumes that cleverly suggest elephants and birds and kangaroos, hatted cats and microscopic people without subjecting actors and audience to cumbersome animal outfits and makeup whiskers. The dialogue, almost entirely written in verse, is charmingly ridiculous, and the songs are tuneful and upbeat, many with wacky Seussian titles: “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think,” “Biggest Blame Fool” and the bittersweet showstopper “Alone in the Universe.”
The giant hat dominating the stage evolves as necessary through a series of set pieces and scrims that slide in or float down to provide whatever trees, clouds or enormous eggs are required. The orchestra, under the direction of Daniel Charles Dennis, is consistently fine.
The real magic of the show, however, is brought by the actors, primarily Joshua Heisler as Horton, the good-hearted and faithful elephant; Stephanie Draude as the insecure and undertailed bird Gertrude McFuzz (Horton’s interspecies love interest); and the aforementioned Andrew Taylor Sa, a fine physical comedian who brings a spark of genius to his interpretation of the Cat in the Hat.
The Cat acts as narrator to the audience and as guide to young JoJo (Ryan Johansen, a kid with a lot of stage presence). It is from JoJo’s above-average imagination that the story springs, though he eventually becomes a part of the story when the Cat assigns him the part of a very small Who, one of a race of tiny creatures living on a dust speck whose fate rests in the hands of Horton, the only animal who knows they are there.
Heisler, as Horton, is a perfect combination of sweetness and magnetism, and his solos (with repetitions of “A person’s a person no matter how small”) can simultaneously delight and break your heart. Draude, as Gertrude, is the character who undergoes the largest emotional transformation, evolving from an insecure bird ashamed at having only one feather in her tail to a confident, self-assured creature with enough cleverness and pluck to ultimately save the day.
The entire ensemble, one of the best collections of voices in recent SRT history, is uniformly excellent, with nice turns by Lynda Mondragon as the soul-singing Sour Kangaroo, Christine Nelson as the flighty Mayzie LaBird, and Christopher M. Spencer and LaRena Iocco as the respective Mayor and Mrs. Mayor of Whoville, each a bundle of squeaky energy that brightens the stage whenever they scamper onto it.
Seussical may lack some of the emotional depth of last year’s Beauty and the Beast, and it works hard to demonstrate much of a plot, but its earnest joyfulness is infectious and delightful. Like Horton the steadfast elephant, this is a show that is good and kind and weirdly beautiful right down to its soul.
‘Seussical’ runs in repertory through Aug. 12 at the SRJC’s Burbank Auditorium. June 30, July 5, 9, 16, 18 and 20, Aug. 2, 5, 9-10 and 12; weeknights and Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 7:30pm; also July 9, 16, 18, 20 and Aug. 2, 9-10 and 12 at 2pm. 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. $8-$20. 707.527.4343.
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