There is much beauty and imagination in this Western Arts Theatre’s production of Seussical, and many thinks were certainly ‘thunk’ in the creation of this absurd and often wonderful rendition.
The creative team for Seussical have done an outstanding job of utilizing the content, the cast, and the fixtures of the Moonee Ponds Clocktower theatre itself.
Kinloch Anstiss as Cat in the Hat is lithe, absurd, and absolutely entertaining. It seems a little unfair that JoJo blames The Cat (who is, after all, a figment of JoJo’s imagination) for JoJo getting in to trouble all the time, especially when the trouble is really quite fun. There was excellent and comical use of props and costume changes for the Cat, and Anstiss undoubtedly filled the shoes (and hat!) of the role.
Horton the Elephant’s character for this production has been reinterpreted as representing Seuss (Theodor Geisel’s middle name, and nom de plume) himself to a certain extent, and it is Horton, rather than JoJo, we first see. There was certainly less sense that Horton is an elephant, and far more that he’s a conscientious and good-hearted worker and community member, toting a three-piece suit and briefcase to his job as a graphic designer (much like Geisel did, apparently). Scott Bradley as Horton was sweet, sincere and suitably ‘cartoonish’ at the same time, although not vocally as consistent as other performers.
JoJo (Georgia Slaymaker) is freckle-faced and by turns both curious and earnest. Slaymaker’s singing was sweet and controlled both in solo and ensemble work. JoJo’s parents – Meg Warren as Mrs Mayor and Hugh Wilson as her husband – were both nurturing and yet beside themselves with how to effectively parent a child of JoJo’s imagination. For someone billed as a ‘minor’ character in a cast where soloists were generally of a high standard, harmony parts exquisite and often challenging, and ensemble singing as a whole warm and well-balanced, Warren‘s voice probably shouldn’t have as much of a pleasant surprise as it was. As with Sarah-Jayne Phillips as Gertrude McFuzz, both have a range of stage experience, and warmth and clarity to their sounds, and it would be quite enjoyable to listen to their voices all day.
The award for most attention-gaining entrance would probably have gone to Rachel Gorman as the Sour Kangaroo – who is really rather more sassy than sour. Although the part calls for an alto, Gorman’s vocalizations hinted at a range and dexterity far beyond.
The Bird Girls (Olivia Linas, Hannah Warren, Ali Simpson, Laura Wilkinson, Stephanie McKeon and Maria Roitman), a Grecian Chorus of sorts, blended, harmonized and moved with competence and skill. The deliberate selection of their rainbow array of attire marked them as being birds like Mayzie and Getrude, yet carefully left the latter characters to stand out at the same time. ‘Lazy’ Mayzie’s (Jaz Wickson) vain vampishness was accentuated by her hot vermillion ruffles and feathers, as she growled and belted her way through Latin numbers and even lounged around with a vacuous – but strangely familiar – Palm Beach cabana boy. At the other end of the colour spectrum, Gertrude’s subdued blues slotted in perfectly with the other birds, whilst still making her just not that noticeable. Cleverly, when Horton does finally notice Gertrude, her blue and his grey mesh together very pleasingly: a subtle but effective visual signal that they belong together.
This effective use of colour continued throughout the production: full use was made of scrims, cyclorama, washes, flys, moving heads and smoke to create a sense of scene change and characterization. The Whos, in cream and gold with subtle pops of pink, were illuminated by a fairy floss pink when all was well with the world. One mention of the Grinch however, and his signature green brought visual chaos to their domain. Flying in ivy and using leafy gobos (patterned projections) likewise transported us to the Jungles of Nool.
Costume changes were also instrumental in bringing the audience along for the ride. There were brilliantly comical features from Ashley Weidner as the ostrich-bedecked General Genghis Kahn Schmitz, Jamie Brown, Lucas Ioppolo and Steven Edward as the Wickersham Brothers (who despite being monkeys, bore some resemblance to the Lion King’s Hyenas), and Jeremy Withers as Yertle the bespectacled Turtle. How the Cat in the Hat handled so many changes in a stage show is impressive, and added a ‘Where’s Wally’ element to some scenes. Watch out for the Cat’s hilarious live broadcast, amongst other cameos.
The most uphill battle for this production is that the book itself is still problematic. Seuss’ work is well-known and loved, but essentially fun nonsense, using limited vocabulary, and largely with the intent of getting children to enjoy reading. Ahrens and Flaherty (Ragtime, Once on This Island, Anastasia) used material from no fewer than 15 Seuss books to create Seussical, and tellingly received fewer nominations and awards for this work than their others. The Broadway premiere in 2000 of Seussical was largely panned, and the show went through some revisions before reaching its current level of popularity and performance. Director and Choreographer Kai Mann-Robertson as honed in and expanded on one of the overarching stories (that of Horton becoming a father), but the overlay of metadiegesis (a dream or imaginative part of the narrative) on metadiegesis is dizzying. In a parallel with Lloyd Webber’s Cats, there is a sense that we’re being introduced to so many different characters in such an array of imaginative situations, that the narrative lacks cohesion at times even if some of the loose ends are eventually resolved in bows.
As a result, in a production almost entirely reliant on the audience suspending their disbelief and going along with the palimpsestic fantasy of multiple nonsense stories cobbled together into a larger narrative, it is challenging to have to constantly construct recognizably distinct sub-fantasies within the confines of a theatre. In addition to the intelligent use of colour in both lighting and costume, Mann-Robertson and assistant choreographer Jenny Morrison’s exciting choreography also helped create character, mood and setting. Excellent use was made of stage space, with a variety of levels (including on the main set piece), contrasting sequences occurring at the same time, and sections of the cast entering and exiting the stage multiple times to create interest and variety. Another notable feature of the choreography was having key characters be swept up or pushed aside by group movement – either joining in just behind the beat or having focus pulled away from them as the group surged forwards. It is certainly a testament to the amount of direction and rehearsal which must have gone in to the production to have something which requires so much planning and practising come across as fresh and unexpected. A related stand-out aspect of the performance was the surprise UV-lit “Havin’ a Hunch”, which again demonstrated the technical and creative vision behind this production, in the slick and imaginative use of props (Arlene Miller and assistant David Cenzato) and choreography combined with lighting and use of stage. What could have been a relatively mundane moment was transformed into something magical. Likewise, the giant fish in McElligot’s Pool (“It’s Possible”) elicited some gasps of wonderment, the audience were also permitted to run away to “Cirkus McGurkus” in an unexpectedly detailed way.
Seussical has a frequently beautiful score by Flaherty, which makes adept use of different genres to musically transport us to various worlds. There were some teething issues with cues – highly common at the start of a run – but a generally tight ensemble producing a full and vibrant sound (especially with some unforgivingly exposed trumpet, flute and percussion parts) emerged confidently from the pit under the baton of musical director Ben Samuel. Other small issues with follow spots, set and crew movement, and the very occasional sound blip, are likewise part and parcel of productions with this complexity. I’m not entirely certain that one hapless stage crew member tripping over the bath early on, and then scrambling to exit the stage as a curtain revealed their presence, was not deliberately planned – as it certainly fitted with the absurd nature of the show. Much of the set piece movement by cast was smooth and incorporated into choreography (including the construction of a rather wonderful representation of a circus tent), utilizing the revolving stage at times as well, so it was a pity that there were a few obvious moments where reality and practicality had to intrude. Ultimately, the obvious work which went into lighting design (Daniel Jow), sound design (Marcello Lo Ricco and associate designer Jake Sipcic), set design (Mann-Robertson, Tim Warren), costume design (Mann-Robertson, assistant producer Madonnah Webb, and costume Assistants Meg Warren and Heather Wright) and hair and makeup was of such excellent quality that minor errors were largely inconsequential though.
The cast in general, as highlighted by the cohesive and engaging programme (Chris Anderson), is a very experienced and talented one as a whole, often with both performing and creative credits to their names. Likewise the WAT creative team have a number of shows under their belts, undoubtedly contributing to the excellent overall quality of Seussical.