I love magic, I always have. First, the shock and awe of seeing the impossible performed followed by a natural curiosity about how the trick is done . . well, I love both. Sometimes the trick is easily explained, so simple that you feel silly for falling for it. And other times the explanation is so complicated that I realize there’s no way I could ever perform it. Those are the magicians I admire the most.
And that’s why I think Vince DeGeorge, the director of CCM’s production of SEUSSICAL is a genius. A big musical is like a giant puzzle, and its important that the right pieces fit together in the right places for the entire picture to come together. But first you must have the right pieces. DeGeorge (and the CCM machine) have the right pieces. It’s how he so delicately assembles them that causes me to marvel – because I truly do not know how he does it.
On Thursday, I saw THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. I couldn’t help but notice similarity in themes between it and SEUSSICAL; the power of the mind is a wonderful thing. While CURIOUS INCIDENT is about a genius figuring things out, SEUSSICAL is more about allowing one to imagine. To believe in the impossible, because the impossible might just be reality. It’s the power of “the think” where we find freedom. Dr. Seuss was a brilliant storyteller; so are the folks who created this beautiful musical. Stephen Flaherty (a CCM graduate) and Lynn Ahrens wrote the book, the lyrics, and the gorgeous score and it’s a powerful mashup of some of Dr. Seuss’s best characters and stories.
There’s The Cat in the Hat, causing trouble but fixing it, too. You’ve got a whole city of Who’s, with the Mayor, his wife, and their son JoJo. There’s Horton the Elephant and Mayzie LaBird. Gertrude McFuzz is here, too, and Yertle the Turtle. General Schmitz is here plus there’s the Wickersham Brothers, Vlad Vladikoff, and the Sour Kangaroo. Even the Grinch makes a cameo. Each of them decked out in costuming by CCM resident costume designer, Dean Mogle. It’s easily the best costume work I’ve ever seen. The cast is lit by Erik McCandless, a student, who uses color and stage magic to transcend time and place on a mostly bare turntable set from Mark Halpin.
Kelly Yurko’s wigs and makeup are stunning. Sean K. Tingle is the sound designer. You can hear birds and other atmospheric noises throughout the theatre, which is cool but frankly there were too many missed mic cues at the performance I attended, which is unacceptable from a production that is otherwise as high quality as you will ever see.
DeGeorge provides the framework, straddling the line between whimsy and melancholy with precision and heart. His choreography (assisted by co-choreographer, student Chris Kelley), along with the aforementioned costumes, provide a visual feast. But within the structure provided, each character finds their voice. The acting in this musical is appropriately over-the-top sometimes but it never once loses its sincerity. For instance, Emily Royer’s portrayal of the self-conscious “Gertrude McFuzz.” She wants to badly to catch Horton’s eye; she’s as sympathetic as she is silly. Derek Kastner’s “Mr. Mayor” (alongside Marissa Hecker as his wife) is hilarious but honest, even in a Mad Hatter-meets-Gene-Wilder-as-Willy Wonka wig and hat. Kevin Chlapecka’s “Cat in the Hat,” could come off as smarmy, but he underplays it finding the nuance in the role. His movements, intentional and mesmerizing, enhance each word. Donelvan Thigpen (“Boy/Jojo”) an outsider in this wonderful world, brings gravitas to his performance and keeps the show grounded. Ben Pimental plays “Yertle the Turtle” with subtlety, and had me in stitches with his slow-motion physicality. Frankie Thams’s “Horton” is likable and anchors the show with his genuineness.
“The Wickersham Brothers” (Stavros Koumbaros, Daniel Marhelko, and EJ Dohring) light up the stage with their charismatic characterization. I was especially impressed with Dohring’s dancing; he’s flown under the radar in his time so far at CCM. Kyle Pollack (“General Schmitz”) is incredibly entertaining in Act Two, with a well-choreographed comedic dance routine. The vocals from “Bird Girls” Areo Keller, Madison Deadman, and Bailee Endebrock are spot on, and Bryn Purvis’s ego-centric portrayal of “Mayzie LaBird” shows star-quality. Finally, Jenny Mollet’s “Sour Kangaroo” belts and commands the stage.
There were lots of children in the audience – moreso than most CCM productions – and they were quiet. Enraptured by the colors and lights and action on stage, but also drawn in to the magical world created by this brilliant cast and crew. I don’t know how all one finds all these puzzle pieces and I especially don’t know how they all get fit together so perfectly. But I do know I like it.
There’s power in thinking; if I learned anything this week from both productions I saw its that very creative people are powerful when their thoughts – or their “thinks” – are set free.
SEUSSICAL runs through October 29th at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Click here for more information.