In his lifetime Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as “Dr. Seuss,” authored 46 books for children; the much-loved musical “Seussical,” written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, takes bits and pieces from 18 of those books and combines them into a flawless, frantic, and incredibly fun show that, when done well, provides endless entertainment that’s suitable for the whole family. Though a favorite with community theaters, “Seussical” is a challenging production, one that requires impressive sets, over-the-top costumes, top-notch choreography, and a large and gifted cast. Fortunately, Harnett Regional Theatre rises to the challenge on all counts.
The story begins when an elephant named Horton (Alec Carroll) hears a sound coming from a small speck of dust. That sound, as fans of Horton Hears a Who know well, turns out to be the voice of the Mayor of Whoville (John Dupree). Whoville, located on the microscopic planet of Who, is a funny little town full of quirky, oddly dressed inhabitants known as Whos.
“Seussical” splits its time between Horton’s world and Whoville and focuses on the intersection between these two distant places that, as it turns out, have a lot more in common than it might appear at first glance. Horton, despite becoming the laughingstock of (most of) his friends and neighbors, works tirelessly to protect the endangered Whos and, in the process, forms a relationship with the Mayor’s son, JoJo (Noah Massengill), who, like Horton, has trouble fitting in. The entire story is narrated by—who else?—The Cat in the Hat (Hunter K. Taylor).
While the entire cast is strong, there are definitely a few standouts in the line-up. John Dupree brings real depth to his role as the Mayor of Whoville. Rather than playing the character as yet another silly Who, Dupree creates a relatable character grappling with the realities of parenting. At one point, JoJo is shipped off to military school, and Dupree effectively conveys how conflicted the mayor is about this decision. The actor’s talent has obviously been passed on to his real-life daughter, Ella John Dupree, who juggles multiple roles with ease. She’s the cutest Young Kangaroo one could ask for, and she always stands out in the crowd, whether she’s playing a Who or a Fish. Long-time readers of TA&E may recall her mention in our review of HRT’s The Sound of Music; she’s only gotten more talented since that performance, making her name one you’ll definitely want to remember.
Other standouts include Massengill, with his sweet, searching, and slightly restless portrayal of JoJo; Carroll’s righteous Horton; and Taylor’s kooky, energetic Cat in the Hat. The superb performances all-around and the catchy musical numbers aren’t the only thing to love about this production, however. The entire show plays out against beautiful, hand-painted sets (Karen Stephenson) that feature perfect renderings of illustrations from Dr. Seuss books. Astute viewers will be able to pick out Dr. Seuss characters—“Thing 1” and “Thing 2” and “Sam I Am” included—hiding in the set. Even smaller set pieces, such as JoJo’s bathtub, feature fun little details—in this case, the red fish from One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish—that will delight fans of the books.
The colorful set isn’t the only thing eye-catching about this production; Amy Langdon pulls out all the stops with her elaborate costumes (think feather boas, bright colors, and sequins galore!). As a nice counterbalance to the over-the-top sets and costumes, much of the make-up is kept minimalistic. Elephant Horton, for example, wears only a gray suit, and The Cat in the Hat relies on cat-like facial manipulation and slinky movements, rather than elaborate make-up, to bring his character to life. This unique choice makes for a production that is visually intriguing rather than visually overwhelming.
Director Vicki Wade makes some excellent staging choices. During the sentimental musical number “Alone in the Universe,” for example, Wade places the singing JoJo and Horton at parallel angles, effectively highlighting the connection they have and the similar yearnings they share. Her choices are complemented by George Savile’s mood-based lighting.
Though HRT’s “Seussical” is a perfect choice for the kids, astute adults will find that, as is the case with Dr. Seuss’ books, deeper themes lie beneath the surface. John Dupree and Amy J. Langdon bring rich complexity to their rendition of the song “How to Raise a Child” and other songs, such as “How Lucky You Are,” will give the adults in the audience a few things to think about. It’s rare for a show to offer true fun for the entire family, but HRT’s “Seussical” delivers just that.
The show will run through May 19th. For tickets or more information, visit OnlineHRT.org.