All the silliness of Dr. Seuss set to music in ‘Seussical’ at Theatre@CBT

Translating beloved books to the stage is a tricky business, and none is trickier than the work of Dr. Seuss. His wackily perfect blend of pictures and verse makes imitating his style seem easy, but it’s anything but. The best attempts are the ones that stay closest to the books, especially in his rollicking poetry, which must be right not only in rhyme but in rhythm. Seuss’ scansion was superb, something that his imitators often miss. Almost all of Dr. Seuss’ works were written in anapestic tetrameter, meaning 12-syllable lines with 4 stressed beats. For example, from The Cat in the Hat:

“But I like to be here. Oh, I like it a lot!”
Said the Cat in the Hat to the fish in the pot.

Bird Girls (Melina Wease, Sari Gabel), Cat (Colleen Williams), and Young Kangaroo (Jessa Gabel) in ‘Seussical.’ Photo by by Mark McLaughlin.

Seussical, the musical by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, does pretty well in this regard, particularly when setting to music the stories Horton Hears a Who and Horton Hatches the Egg, which form the basic plot. But an entire musical in one rhythm, even anapestic tetrameter, would be boring, so Flaherty and Ahrens add songs in styles ranging from Latin to pop, swing to gospel, and R&B to funk. The only problem comes from the notation “Based on the Works of Dr. Seuss.” They’re not kidding. They try to stuff in almost every story in the Seuss canon. The musical is crammed to bursting with characters, elements, and references to not only Horton and his cohort but Gertrude McFuzz, the Grinch, The Cat in the Hat, General Genghis Khan Schmitz, Green Eggs and Ham, The Lorax, Solla Sollew, and Oh the Thinks You Can Think, to name just a few. Even in the crazy world of Dr. Seuss, there aren’t enough thinks to be able to follow the plot that plops out of this.

The production of Seussical presented by Theatre@CBT on February 4 and 5 at Congregation B’Nai Tzedek in Potomac grabbed this cheerful chaos and ran with it. Under Kevin Sockwell’s capable direction and sly sense of humor, the show did what it set out to do, which was to provide two hours of loopy delight for the audience and a heaping helping of fun for the large cast.

With so many characters, Seussical was a terrific show for this particular company, which regularly collects a talented group of adults and children — often whole families — and brings out the best in them. The Whos (Dina Burman, Becca Fielding, Huey Friel, Carol Jones, Emma Lipworth, Lila Mosier, Sabrina Williams, Danielle Yunes) sang enthusiastically, even while being tossed around by the nasty Wickersham Brothers (Nadia Farber, Rachel Melnick, Levi Weiss, Jackie Williams) and winding up in casts and bandages after their planet has been dropped from the sky by the suitably goth vulture Vlad Vladikoff (Hanna Chernoff). Thing 1 and Thing 2 (Abby Fielding, Laila Yunes) were adorable backup dancers to the Cat in the Hat. (Richelle “Rikki” Howie was choreographer.) Arielle Katz amusingly pulled off a double role as Yertle the Turtle and the Judge (complete with RBG pearl collar). Jeff Breslow made much of a brief portrayal of the Grinch, and Dave Robinson was both stylish and scary as General Genghis Khan Schmitz. And Michael Chernoff and Lauren Lerner-Naft were lovely as the Mayor of Whoville and his Mrs., bemused parents of a child who had the audacity to keep thinking thinks!

Clockwise from top left: Gertrude (Lauren-Nicole Gabel), Grinch (Jeff Breslow), Horton (Michael Abendshein), Yertle (Arielle Katz), Jojo (Adriana Cogliani), and Young Kangaroo (Jessa Gabel) in ‘Seussical.’ Photos by by Mark McLaughlin.

One thing that stands out in Theatre@CBT productions is that, even being a family-oriented, synagogue-based group, they consistently procure top-notch musical talent. Musical Director Sam Weich conducted his orchestra (Stuart Weich, Lesley Cooper, Rose Weich, James Berman, and Claudio Ferreira) deftly through many different musical styles and drew excellent harmonies from the chorus and fine performances from the singers. Selfish Mayzie LaBird (Petra Munter) and her backup Bird Girls (Sari Gabel, Melina Wease, Amelia Stickle) rumba’d with gusto. Gertrude McFuzz (Lauren-Nicole Gabel) was sweetly funny. The Sour Kangaroo (Alissa Margolis) raised the roof with her Aretha Franklinesque “Biggest Blame Fool.” JoJo (Adrianna Cogliani) apparently made her stage debut in this production, which is hard to believe given her fine performance — she’ll be one to watch. Michael Abendshein as Horton touched the heart with his characterization of the plucky pachyderm. And as the master of ceremonies, The Cat in the Hat, Colleen Williams excelled, whether capering about the stage trying to keep the plot together or growling Satchmo-inspired duets with Mayzie.

Chasing the Whos, in ‘Seussical.’ Photo by Mark McLaughlin.

The venue, the Sanctuary at Congregation B’nai Tzedek, is a difficult place to stage elaborate musicals. There is no way to change scenery, or even lighting. But Theatre@CBT always makes the most of what tech they have. Matthew Datcher’s sound engineering and body mics for all the principals made the production easy to hear. The costumes (by Lauren-Nicole Gabel) and the props (by Matthew Ratz, Jessa Gabel, Ethan Issadore, and Victoria Lee) were perfect for the purpose. Nothing was too elaborate, but everything fit, from the birds all wearing simple bright-colored dresses gussied up with feather boas, to the Whos identified by variations of yellow and green, to the kangaroos in brown overalls with big front pockets. And Horton was dressed simply in grey elephant ears, a blue plaid shirt, and a tie — which served as his trunk when need be. The scenery, such as it was, was more than suitably Seussical. A stand of crepe paper Truffula Trees looked like they grew right out of The Lorax. And the props added even more to the style — a whole school of more than One Fish, Two Fish swam through one number, and at another point, the Cat carried through a tray of green eggs and ham that looked like it popped right off the pages of the book into 3D. Some props simply added joke value for those paying attention, like the shofar in the Whoville band.

Overall, despite a script that felt like a fever dream one might have after reading all of Dr. Seuss’ books at once, the songs, performances, music, costumes, props, and general silliness added up to a suitably Seussian delight.

Running Time: Two hours with a 15-minute intermission.

Seussical played February 4 and 5, 2023, presented by Theatre@CBT performing at Congregation B’nai Tzedek, 10621 South Glen Road, Potomac, MD. Theatre@CBT’s next event will be a staged reading of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution on Saturday, February 18, at 7:30 pm and Sunday, February 19, at 2:00 pm. Tickets ($18) are available online.