BWW Reviews: Anything's Possible at PMT's Anarchic SEUSSICAL
Good morning, class- today's lesson is about clowns. Not the face-painted, red-nosed pantomime clowns you see at the circus, but theatrical clowns, those performers who are undeniably entertainers first and foremost, actors and anything else a near second. Many of the greatest names in Broadway history are theatre clowns: Zero Mostel, Fanny Brice, James Coco, Whoopi Goldberg, Nathan Lane (and the entire 1972 Toronto cast of Godspell, who became the founding members of both Saturday Night Live and the Second City comedic dynasty). However, one encounters problems when trying to effectively utilize the clown. Does the clown exist to support the show, or does the show exist to support the clown?
Seussical The Musical, written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and co-conceived with legendary comedic buffoon Eric Idle, is undoubtedly no masterpiece, though the massively rewritten version licensed nowadays is head and shoulders above the lumpy and disappointing Broadway original. The plot is almost unimportant: The Cat In The Hat guides the audience through the intertwined tales of Horton, who hears a Who (a whole planet of them, in fact), and Jojo, a prepubescent Who whose tendency towards imagination and thinking gets him in trouble with the authorities and sent off to war. Does that sound silly? It is! Not much happens plot-wise other than a series of vignettes featuring various Seuss characters interacting with each other, allowing their own stories and personalities to intertwine with the main thread. (Don't blink, or you'll miss that the Judge at the end of the show is Yertle the Turtle, one of my Seussian favorites from childhood.)
Without a strong plot to move the story forward, the responsibility for entertainment falls squarely on the back of the cast... and on the back of the Cat. This role was originated by legendary circus clown David Shiner, then taken on by clownish star Rosie O'Donnell. Here in Pittsburgh, when the words "theatre clown" are spoken, one name springs to mind more than any other: Tim Hartman. And Hartman more than delivers. Physically, Hartman is perfect, as his enormous, nearly seven-foot frame towers up to nearly eight in the cat's famous stovepipe. As he appears and disappears, both as the Cat and a handful of minor characters also given to Hartman to play, he contorts his craggy baritone into a number of highly distinctive and comedic voices and impersonations- everything from Ray Charles to the Swedish Chef, all the way to the entire cast of The Sound Of Music: Live... plus one more too good to spoil here.
It is here that the aforementioned clown-show dilemma comes into play, as Tim Hartman's Cat In The Hat tends to drop the rhyming couplets and go off-book into extended comedic monologues to the audience (as characters played by Tim Hartman usually do). In the hands of a less capable performer, this would be disastrous, not to mention that as a playwright myself I feel like I should have some sort of righteous outrage over this. But Hartman is a pro, a local legend and a great improvisor. Seussical appears to be the kind of show that needs a free hand to capture the spirit of "anything can happen" that pervades the work of Dr. Seuss, and Hartman, under the direction of Colleen Petrucci, plays fast and loose with the script, much to the delight of the audience.
No one has ever claimed that Seussical has a very strong book, and it is in the deviations from standard production that Petrucci and her cast shine the most. When Hartman's Cat stops Horton the Elephant, played by Billy Mason, mid-song to deliver an existential rant about being "an enormous freaking cat," rather than losing momentum, the show gains it. "I mean, look at me!" Hartman groans. "I'm twice your size, and you're an elephant!" Later, when Jojo is apparently killed in the Butter Battles (if the plot to this show mattered at all, that would be a spoiler), the Cat's rant on how no one expects violence in a Dr. Seuss story quickly moves into a parody of both Les Miserables and Peter Pan, including a sarcastic invocation of the "clap if you believe in fairies" trope with a randomly-produced rewind button.
The other cast members who fare the best are those who embrace the chaotic, anarchic spirit of clowning. Though Billy Mason's Horton is well sung and well acted, the show's weak book all but ensures that Horton, the straight man of the story, disappears from focus sometimes amidst the sillier characters. Similarly, Emily Lynne Miller, who played a brilliant Fantine last month, makes her quirky and vaguely grotesque Gertrude McFuzz a much more memorable character than the "amayzing" Mayzie LaBird, as played by the very talented Larissa Overholt. Like Horton, Mayzie's lack of prominence is simply a matter of an underwritten character. Jennifer Lybarger and Jeremy Czarniak fare well as Jojo's parents, and make an effective comic duo with a cute running gag involving the production's constant rhyming. In the show's smallest and usually most thankless role, Rush Hodgin makes an unexpected impact delivering his character's sole line, "Vlad Vladikoff!," with genuine villainous glee.
But behind Hartman, the show clearly belongs to one particular bit player. Last month, Brady Patsy played the role of Javert and, while undoubtedly a solid performance, did not stick out as the highlight of the production. This month, Patsy practically walks away with the show. As General Gengis Khan Schmitz, complete with Genghis Khan moustache, Patsy seems to channel both famous military character actor R. Lee Ermey, the prototype for all drill sergeant roles, and Beetlejuice. Crowing, cackling and spitting in an abrasive military drawl, Patsy has the audience roaring every time he appears onstage. If he and the Cat appeared onstage together, the whole show would probably explode, but unfortunately the two characters never meet.
The production employs a versatile but minimal unit set designed by Jonathan T. Sage, featuring a few trucking elements and several ropes for the Wickersham Brothers to swing out over the orchestra pit. The lighting design by Todd Nonn is more evocative, allowing for clever staging effects such as lighted fish "flying" over the stage or a Fosse-inspired blacklight dance. Brent Alexander directs the orchestra with savvy and a great ear, including replacing the oboe with a soprano sax to give a harder pop edge to the orchestrations.
Dr. Seuss purists may balk at the production for its occasional digs at the famous writer and his stylistic cliches, but I can't imagine anyone else walking away from this production without a smile and at least a few laughs. Colleen Petrucci has admirably followed in the footsteps of her predecessor, Ken Gargaro, in thinking outside the box when it comes to shows that all too often are carbon copies from one production to another. This may not be the most faithful production of the show I have ever seen, but it is undeniably the best, and the only time I have ever felt that the show's central moral was accurately reflected onstage. "It's possible... anything's possible!"