Seussical: The Musical: Insipid Cat, Right-Wing Propaganda

Written by Jonathan Kalb on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Okay, I know
what you’re thinking. Why would Rosie O’Donnell be hauled in to replace
David Shiner as the Cat in the Hat for 24 performances of Seussical in
January if the show weren’t already in serious trouble less than a month
after opening? Can O’Donnell, not known for her gymnastic prowess, really
handle a role conceived for one of the theater’s most accomplished physical
clowns? And what has the whole thing got to do with the revolting right-wing
politics now creeping back into power? Funny you should ask.

The critical
dope on Seussical has been that it tries to do too much in too glitzy
an idiom and ends up subverting the gentle and intimate spirit of the material.
That’s certainly true but not the whole story. I feel obligated to mention
that my eight-year-old son Oliver, who went with me, thoroughly enjoyed the
show, with the exception of the Cat in the Hat, which he thought was extraneous.
"He’s really just a man in the hat," quoth Oliver, piercing to
the heart of why the O’Donnell gambit will be little more than a p.r. blip,
regardless of what she does onstage.

has a certain resilient charm, but none of it comes from its insipid feline
MC, whose irrelevant displays of generic shtick (pratfalling, shooting silly
string at the audience, interviewing a kid in a box seat like a talk-show host)
obviously stem from the producers’ nervousness that charm alone wouldn’t
sell tickets. The Cat is barely characterized as Seuss’ famous and beloved
trickster, the spirit of mischief when parents are away; he exists only to produce
sufficient cheap yuks to make people feel the show is as much fun as television.
Rosie to the rescue indeed.

charm–such as it is–comes mostly from Kevin Chamberlin as Horton the
Elephant and a few other actors whose investment in Seuss’ world of innocent
discovery is strong and sincere enough to rise above all the razzle-dazzle of
vulgar overproduction. Portly, warm, affable and dressed in nothing more elaborate
than a gray, wrinkle-pattern, pajama-like outfit, Chamberlin is positively elephantine
before he even enacts Horton’s stories (of which more in a moment). His
genial spirit of plodding faithfulness and adventurousness is the best reason
to see the show.

Janine LaManna
is endearingly driven as Gertrude McFuzz, the bird who regrets her single tail
feather and who is inexplicably sweet on Horton here. A pure-voiced child actor
named Anthony Blair Hall does a fine job making a human being of the formulaically
written role of JoJo, an ostensibly naughty and lonely Who-kid who comes to
think of Horton as an intrepid alter ego. And Stephen Flaherty (best known for
composing the music in Ragtime) has provided the show with two memorable
songs (a multitude in today’s musical field): a sweet duet for JoJo and
Horton called "Alone in the Universe" and a ballad called "It’s
Possible," used to extol the marvels in McElligot’s pool and the powers
of the imagination.

The producers
alone know who is really responsible for the hodgepodge of a book as it currently
stands. Early on, the good doctor’s widow reportedly approved the strategy
of blending numerous Seuss stories rather than choosing a few for separate treatment,
but she certainly had no say in the power struggles prior to the New York opening
that resulted in key firings and emergency replacements. The result is a scattered,
unwhimsical and utterly forgettable mishmash that tries to paper over its senseless
spots with obscure incongruities, gratuitously rowdy songs and annoyingly busy
production numbers. If anyone can tell me what Green Eggs and Ham has
to do with military drilling, or why the Grinch stands muttering on a dais during
his single understated appearance, or what a chorus of sleek, buff men in skimpy
vests and tight leather pants has to do with the monkeys who torment Horton,
I’ll be grateful.

Which brings
me back to the subject of revolting politics. On top of everything else, the
committee at the helm of Seussical planted a crypto-pro-life message
at the center of this family event. Seuss wrote two different books about the
faithful Horton: Horton Hatches the Egg, in which the elephant spends
months obstinately sitting on an egg that an irresponsible bird has abandoned,
and Horton Hears a Who!, in which he guards a clover on which he alone
hears the voices of a minuscule people called Whos. In combining these stories,
the musical forces Horton to choose between his two charges, because the clover
is stolen from him and he can’t keep searching for it without endangering
the egg. Blithely and righteously, he thus chooses to value a single unborn
life over the vibrant, developed life of an entire populous town. On the subway
ride home, I proposed to Oliver that our family donate a chunk of our holiday-gift
money to NARAL this year.

Richard Rodgers
Theater, 226 W. 46th St. (betw. B’way & 8th Ave.), 307-4100.

Jane Eyre:
The Musical

By John Caird and
Paul Gordon

Nothing so
sly (or careless) is operating beneath the surface of John Caird and Paul Gordon’s
three-hour musical version of Jane Eyre. That’s because little in
it delves beneath surfaces at all. This is a literary adaptation only in the
most nominal, mercantile sense, pitched entirely at a middlebrow public that
has vaguely heard of Charlotte Bronte’s novel but has either never read
it or never thought it substantially different from a cheap Harlequin romance.
There are a number of excellent singers in the show (notably James Barbour and
Elizabeth DeGrazia), but its music is exceedingly ordinary and repetitive, its
storytelling crass and plodding, and its sets astonishingly dull and dreary
(featuring dark mobile screens for somber projections–design by John Napier).
For all that, like a trite sentimental movie, it tugs your heartstrings anyway,
leaving you annoyed that its shallow strategy retains power even for those who
see through it.

The melodramatic
skeleton of the book is all there: the grim, early 19th-century, orphan childhood,
the job as a governess at Thornfield Hall, the near-marriage with the master
Edward Rochester, the revenge of the mad wife locked away in the attic, Jane’s
breathless escape and return after receiving a telepathic message. All the details
that lent psychological subtlety and nuance to this core, however, have been
carefully trimmed away, as if they were never of real interest. Ostensibly "plain"
Jane is played by the conspicuously pretty Marla Schaffel. She doesn’t
confront people here with the content of the books she has read, or reveal the
depth of her fantasies through florid descriptions, as Bronte’s Jane habitually
does. And her momentous life decisions are all simplified to black and white

Those who thwart
her are hateful villains from the second they appear, those who befriend her
kindly stereotypes. The only exceptions are the two male love interests: brooding,
Byronesque Rochester (Barbour) and the stiff Calvinist minister St. John Rivers
(Stephen R. Buntrock), whom book-writer Caird has inexplicably given the task
of caring for Jane’s dying rich aunt, Mrs. Reed. Perhaps this change was
intended to make Jane’s sudden financial inheritance near the end seem
less contrived (in the original, it comes not from that hated aunt but from
an uncle Jane never met). If so, this was a lot of trouble taken for nothing,
since the audience couldn’t care less about such plausibility questions
as their mushy minds are hurtling toward a foreordained happy ending, just as
no one cares about fine architectural principles while watching a marble negotiating
a marble run.

Brooks Atkinson
Theater, 256 W. 47th St. (betw. B’way & 8th Ave.), 307-4100.

Princess Turandot
Darko Tresnjak

If you’re
looking for more satisfying light holiday entertainment from a reworked classic,
I suggest the Blue Light Theater Company’s Princess Turandot, which
I unfortunately saw too late to praise at the length it deserves. Written and
directed by Darko Tresnjak–who also directed last season’s elegant
production of Philip Barry’s Hotel Universe for Blue Light–this
is a delightful adaptation of the old Gozzi fable (not the Puccini opera) that
blends shadow puppetry, commedia dell’arte, Brechtian storytelling, juggling,
gymnastics and more. Part of its charm is its modest zaniness, despite its profusion
of methods, with colorful sets and costumes that do a great deal with simple,
low-tech means, and clever actors who work marvelously idiosyncratic detail
into broad characterizations. Especially if you thought, as I did, that the
ostentatious zaniness in Julie Taymor’s Gozzi adaptation on Broadway, The
Green Bird
, often grew tiresome, I recommend a visit (with your kids, if
you have any) to this joyously theatrical and inspiringly wacky event.

Theater, 2162 Broadway (76th St.), 206-1515, through Dec.30.