Tuesday, October 4, 2016

theatre review - SEUSSICAL - Desert Stages Theatre

Rob Dominguez and Isaac Speyer
photo: Heather & Dana Butcher
by Jennifer Haaland

Seussical, a fun Ahrens and Flaherty musical  sputtered on Broadway in 2000 even with celebrity names like Rosie O'Donnell playing Cat in the the Hat.  Here's the thing.  It's a show better suited to exactly where it's playing this minute - Desert Stages in Scottsdale.

Based on a bunch of smooshed together Dr. Seuss stories, mostly "Horton Hears a Who," the catchy tunes and fantastical characters ask us to dispel our disbelief and enter a world of pure make believe.  This weekend's opening at Desert Stages was like the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland idealism thrust into the 21st century to put on a bubbly homespun show. With everyone pitching in, the sum was most certainly greater than the whole of the parts in this production.

The central magic Saturday night was young Isaac Speyer's belief in his own imagination. As JoJo, the Whoville Mayor's son, 5th-grade Speyer's thinks were the plot's impetus.  With wide-eyed innocence and pure heart, Speyer exercised mature acting and vocal skills beyond his years. His "Alone in the Universe" duet with Horton (Joshua Michel) rang especially true for both actors.

Jonathan Perry Brown, Reagan Burows and Todd Corbeil
photo: Heather & Dana Butcher
In addition to having Speyer lead the cheery charge, Director Dan Ashlock also made great technical decisions. The set was the entire performance space, audience included. Full of replicated Seuss book spines and bright splashy colors, the walls, stage floors and multiple platforms oozed with rainbow hues and truffula tree creativity that Theodor Geisel himself could applaud.  There was even a well-traversed, wavy slide built into the set.

The singing and dancing ensemble delightfully illustrated the Suess truism that "a person's a person no matter how small." They played and giggled and shone.  Well rehearsed and playful, they were also clad in adorably imaginative costumes that relied on feathers, funnels, spongy styrofoam and sharpies. One of the best examples  featured cellophane-crackling happy fish in McElligot's Pool while Jo Jo was choreographed in a full-out gravity defying midair swim while lazy, iridescent bubbles flooded the atmosphere. Later, fluorescent paint and tap shoes added more snappy variety.

Stephanie Spencer
photo: Heather & Dana Butcher
One of the old guys, easily in his 20s, Rob Dominguez's role as Cat in the Hat grew on the audience as he became more and more comfortable in his gleeful fur. Some other slightly more grown up thespians were thrown in for good measure.   Stephanie Spencer as Gertrude McFuzz  was a sweet and earnest wallflower who threw out gutsy lyrics, growing her confidence alongside her amazing tail.   The flame-haired Mayor and Mrs. Mayor (Jonathan Perry Brown and Reagan Burows) exercised excellent projection and mystified parental spunk, especially evident in "How to Raise a Child."

It was a satisfying evening of watching young actors find themselves and their gifts. Seussical at Desert Stages represents the intended spirit of community theater, demonstrating how heart propels the ordinary to well beyond the extraordinary. Truly, anything's possible.

CLICK HERE for more information on Seussical at Desert Stages Theatre, which runs through October 30th.

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