There’s no way you can take your eyes off Keegan Theatre’s production of Seussical: The Musical. Josh Sticklin’s colorful, multilevel playground of a set and a wild variety of costumes by Alison Samantha Johnson and Janine Sunday are sure-fire attention grabbers. Not even the youngest members of the audience could fail to remain engaged by the unstinting energy of the ensemble, performing one aerobically challenging dance number after another.
Taking their material principally from three Dr. Seuss stories, Horton Hatches an Egg (1940), Horton Hears a Who (1954), and Gertrude McFuzz (1958), Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens created a plotline involving Horton (Keegan regular Michael Innocenti), an empathetic elephant, Gertrude (Sarah Chapin), an insecure but loving bird who becomes his romantic interest, and the inhabitants of Whoville, a microscopic planet that Horton discovers floating on a speck of dust. The voices of the Who are so faint that only an elephant’s acute ears can hear them, a problem from which the audience, given the at times overwhelming level of amplification in Brandon Cook’s sound design, does not suffer.
The Who are not on (stage) first, however; that distinction belongs to an initially unnamed child (Kailyn Fetterman) who calls forth a favorite Seuss creation, The Cat in the Hat, played by Quincy Vicks as a charismatic, loose-limbed narrator/dancer/vaudevillian. While he is not quite the trickster of the original Seuss story, he does coordinate the action, inserting the child into the story as JoJo, whose parents are the mayor (Stephen Russell Murray) and first lady (Julia Link) of Whoville.
JoJo insists on thinking for herself, dismaying her parents and leading to my favorite costume moment of the show. The parents are dressed in yellow. JoJo wears a shirt with horizontal orange stripes, echoing the Cat’s iconic hat. They make her don a yellow bathrobe, signifying her at least temporary conformity. Later, JoJo and Horton find themselves to be kindred souls, feeling “Alone in the Universe.”
Horton, ever compassionate and steadfast, if perhaps not as assertive as one would like for the play’s protagonist, takes on two difficult tasks. Having found Whoville, he must protect its people. “A person is a person, no matter how small,” he says and sings repeatedly, expressing the story’s central theme. This is a tough sell to other denizens of the Jungle of Nool, particularly the Wickersham brothers (Murray, Christian Montgomery, and Jimmy Bartlebaugh), monkeys who abduct the clover on which Horton has deposited Whoville, sending Horton on a lengthy quest to retrieve his minuscule friends.
In co-directors/choreographers Kurt Boehm and Ashleigh King’s concept of the characters, the Wickershams are more than bad boys up to hijinks; they appear intentionally cruel. Like everyone in the cast, their vocals and movement are first-rate. Among the other skeptics is the Sour Kangaroo (Tori Gomez), who in a dynamic belt role makes clear her disdain for what seems to her to be Horton’s well-meaning nonsense.
Horton’s second task is to sit on a large egg, laid by Mayzie, a party girl bird who has no interest in parenthood. In another striking belt role, Caroline Graham, in “Amayzing Mazie,” assisted by Bird Girls Carianmax Benitez, Sally Imbriano, and Link, shows that this is one bird who knows how to shake her tail feathers. Mayzie’s bright pink outfit and the rainbow colors of her backup trio are another win for the show’s costume design.
Left with the egg for 51 weeks while Mayzie vacations at Palm Beach, Horton, perched atop a well-designed moveable set-piece nest, is subject to additional indignities, which he patiently endures. He meant what he said when he promised to care for the egg, providing a good role model on the Father’s Day performance I saw.
Horton’s neutral, subdued costuming contrasts with the bolder colors worn by many other characters. Likewise, his consistently sweet, wistful music contrasts with the uptempo, brassy tone of much of the rest of the score.
The character given the most varied vocal palate is Gertrude, who has moments of belt, lyricism, and even patter. She also has the most interesting character arc in the show, transitioning from a bird who — for having only a single tail feather — feels unattractive, then gains an excess of tail feathers that prove unmanageable, and finally settles into a more secure sense of herself as she and Horton come together by show’s end. Chapin handles all aspects of the role delightfully.
Seussical’s score is undistinguished, serviceable for purposes of moving the story along and providing the beat for the frequent, though too often quite similar, movement pieces. It includes no candidates for the roster of great theater songs. There are moments that sound, to my ears, derivative of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s work. Nathan Blustein’s six-piece “Whoville Orchestra,” placed on an upstage platform, capably accompanies the cast.
The original Broadway version of Seussical, a full-length two-act musical, famously failed both artistically and financially. As a tightly constructed one-act, this version gets across the themes that animate Dr. Seuss’s work in a format that not only avoids excess but is of a length that does not too strenuously test the attention spans of children in the audience. As Horton might say, a play is a play, no matter how small.
Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission.
Seussical: The Musical plays through July 22, 2023, at the Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church Street NW, Washington, DC, Tickets ($65 for adults, $55 for students under 25 and seniors, and $25 for youth) may be obtained online, by phone at 202-265-3767, or in person at the Keegan Theatre Box Office, which opens on the day of the show one hour prior to the performance.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional but encouraged. Keegan’s Health & Safety Policies are here.