Review by Krystal Holzer.
Of all ‘the thinks I could think’, I most definitely thought that Old Carey Performing Arts Club’s production of Seussical The Musical was one of the most entertaining, awe inspiring and feel-good theatergoing experiences I have had in quite some time (or perhaps ever!). The endless ‘ooos’ and ‘ahhs’, gasps and laughter that resonated from the audience were a testament to this. I felt comfort in knowing that those sitting around me, from the smallest, most mesmerised child, to the fun-loving, toe-tapping oldies and everyone in between, shared in my amazement.
Based on the books of Dr. Seuss, Seussical presents an amalgamation of childhood favourites including The Cat in the Hat, Horton the Elephant, The Jungle of Nool, Gertrude McFuzz, Planet Who and Solla Sollew. I have experienced Seussical on two previous occasions and I must admit, it’s never been one of my favourite shows. A far cry from Spring Awakening, Rent or Next to Normal, the types of shows I generally gravitate towards and allow to send me into a spiral of gut-wrenching emotion, Seussical never really cut it for me. That is, until I experienced first time director Josh Elwood’s beautifully staged and wonderfully executed take on a show that, in my experience, has the potential to leave audiences confused and disengaged.
Elwood makes mention in his Director’s Notes that it was his intention to provide the audience with a different spin on a world they’re likely to know well, whilst allowing them the opportunity to remember the ways in which they no doubt lost themselves in make-believe worlds as children. His fearlessness in reimagining Seussical to be told from the perspective of a child’s imagination was well received and saw his vision not only realised but indeed exceed expectations, in a directorial debut that should be nothing but celebrated.
Elwood’s Seussical begins in a kindergarten-esque classroom, decked out with a lot of Seuss merchandise in amongst other iconic childhood toys, books and figurines. As the cast entered, I didn’t see a pack of 20-somethings obscurely dressed as kinder kids. Instead, I was met with convincing portrayals of the often cute and quirky mannerisms children so innocently (and sometimes hilariously) reveal when they’re free to be kids. I should mention that at this point I was a little confused – neither of the other two versions of Seussical I had seen previously had taken this approach. This confusion, however, shortly turned to intrigue and from intrigue came awe. A giant dress-up box on stage provided the ‘children’ with bits and pieces that might be found around the home or their classroom – some animal print material, feather boas, helmets, household items and hand-me-down clothing. Elwood’s vision came alive as each ‘child’ chose from these bits and pieces to create their very own costumes which they would use to imagine themselves as characters from the world of Seuss. The way in which these costumes were worn mirrored the playfulness and lack of regard for preciseness associated with children and only emphasised the importance of using one’s imagination to envision a bigger picture, as well as how integral this concept is to childhood. The classroom remained on stage for the duration of the show and at times, cast changed between portraying their animal or ‘Who’ to be a kid again. I thought this was an excellent decision as, though I was very often so fully immersed in what was happening, I was constantly reminded of the power of imagination and its enduring nature.
In keeping with Elwood’s vision, Kelsey Andrew’s choreography proved to be another debut performance worth celebrating. It was as if I was allowed the opportunity to peer into the mind of a child, and become privy to how a child might think they are dancing when in actuality they look like cute, frantic, flailing fools. A crowd favourite was the ‘Havin’ a Hunch’ number. Both the children and the adults of the audience appeared to be bewildered and, despite almost the entire cast being on stage, the choreography proved whimsical and used the space incredibly well.
Lighting design by Giancarlo Salamanca was simply stunning. The enthusiasm, optimism and carefree nature of childhood were all captured and replicated in his design and worked well to evoke these same feelings in the members of the audience. I was especially struck by the use of blinders behind the classroom door as the parents of the protagonist, Jojo, stood in front of the door to be lit with a heavenly glow while they held him in a warm embrace. This proved to be unexpectedly emotional and heartwarming. It should be mentioned that, at times, there seemed to be perhaps too little face light which proved distracting. In saying that, this was a small price to pay for the innovative and engaging display. For instance, I was particularly impressed when lights would sweep out into the auditorium during inspirational and up-lifting lyrics and/or lines, reaching out to each audience member, and strengthening the allegiance between characters and audience. It aided to include them in the understanding that ‘anything’s possible’ – the overarching theme of the show.
With all of this said however, the show could quite possibly have crumbled if not for the amazing cast. With a vast majority of this talented group of individuals holding a qualification in performing arts, it was unlikely that they would fail to impress – all expectations were exceeded. I was so very impressed with the ensemble of this show. Every single performer was incredibly animated, reacted brilliantly to all that was going on around them and took the stage with a fearless confidence to be admired. Many ensemble members had dual roles and transitioned between them flawlessly and with conviction.
There were several young children in the audience who were engaged for the duration of the show and were particularly excited whenever Mark Yeates stepped on stage as the hilarious Cat in the Hat. Yeates’ Cat was truly the cornerstone of the show, with each of his quirky alter-egos portrayed with distinction and controlled humour. Yeates’ take on the Cat as Dr.Phil was definitely one of my favourites (I’m a tragic fan of Dr. Phil, kudos Mark – you nailed it!). I was particularly impressed with Yeates’ improv skills and sensitive interaction with a little girl in the front row, whilst portraying an auctioneer. No doubt this little girl now believes elephants make good table centerpieces, ‘peas, carrots and elephants’ go well together apparently…. Yeates was just all round ‘ghetto fab’.
Andreas Katsiroubas’ performance as the loveable and sometimes over-imaginative JoJo captured the curiousness and innocence of a child so beautifully. Katsiroubas has an amazing vocal range and was able to hit notes that I would have thought would be a struggle with such ease. There were moments where I felt as though his voice was beginning to fatigue, but the effort he put in throughout the show was an incredible feat and should be congratulated. Another massive voice came from the very petite Eleanor Horsburgh who played Gertrude McFuzz, the love-struck bird whose tail leaves something to be desired. Horsburgh reminded me of a young, brunette Kristen Chenoweth and her performance was very reminiscent of Chenoweth’s portrayal of Sally in You’re a Goodman Charlie Brown mixed with the spunk of Matilda. Gertrude’s elephant-crush, Horton, played by classically trained Sam McPartland, proved that humans truly could sympathise with animals or at least imagine doing so. It was somewhat disappointing that I could not see McPartland for a lot of the show as he was positioned on the stage floor and the rows of seats that had been added for audience right in front of the stage blocked my view quite severely. However, I was almost taken aback (and a little embarrassed) with how emotional I got as Horsburgh and McPartland sang about raising a little elephant bird together. The interactions between the two performers convincingly tug at the audience’s heartstrings.
A shout-out must go to Zak Marrinan and Nicholas Renfree-Marks who portrayed the General and Sour Kangaroo respectively. Marrinan’s performance reminded me a lot of another Seuss actor, Jim Carey. His facial expressions were priceless and his ability to command the stage with a roast pan on his head was admirable. Renfree-Marks was outstanding. Every time he walked on stage, his fierce-sass was not only entertaining but also show-stopping. In a role not typically done in drag, this was an unexpected standout performance.
Daniel Donovan’s musical direction was a pleasure to listen to. Both cast and band alike sounded amazing and harmonies blended so nicely. This was particularly evident with the Bird Girls whose harmonies sounded fantastic and effortless. I was very happy that the band (I thought initially the band was provided via a backtracking on a CD – they were THAT good) were revealed at the end of the show as The Cat in the Hat pulled back a black curtain. They definitely deserved their time with the audience as their performance was just as impressive as that of the cast and creative team.
I went into it expecting to see the same Seussical I had seen and not enjoyed all that much before, yet I left with nothing but a smile and a compulsion to spread the word! So with that said, I urge you to buy tickets now before this limited season is over. If happy, fun loving shows are not you’re thing, I guarantee you’ll still be impressed – after all, ‘anything’s possible’.