BWW Review: THE SNEETCHES: THE MUSICAL at Children's Theatre Company
Imagine: A society of critters called Sneetches live on Sneetch Beach, divided down the middle by a rigid red line in the sand. On one side, the Sneetches have green stars on their bellies. On the other, they don't. The star-bellied Sneetches despise the plain bellies, who trudge into factories making the goods their privileged counterparts enjoy. While the star-bellies party, they also raise funds to widen the line, and try to figure out how to get the plain bellies to pay for it, to boot.
Fantasy, right? Fiction, right? Children's silliness, right?
This world premiere of a new musical based on a short story by Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, has just opened in Minneapolis. It's the latest collaboration between Seuss Enterprises and the Children's Theatre, and it's clearly a parable for our time, despite the fact that it's been in the works for a full four years.
With book and lyrics by Philip Dawkins and music by David Mallamud, this energetic two act ensemble piece is ably staged by Artistic Director Peter Brosius with a company comprised of pros and area kids, supported by seven musicians in the pit. The lyrics are clever and the music is catchy. Choreography by Michael Matthew Ferrell is animated, and the whole is calibrated to keep a multi-generational audience well entertained over two acts.
Geisel is a complicated figure. This story was published in 1953, and arose in part from his horror at Nazi anti-Semitism where Jews were forced to wear stars of David to mark them out first for discrimination and eventually for annihilation. Perhaps the story suggests, too, that he had rethought his own role as a political cartoonist who promoted negative stereotypes of Asians during WW2. It's hard to know.
But what is clear is that he had arrived at a pretty sophisticated critique of market capitalism and the way it exploits our anxiety about belonging to the in crowd so as to maximize profit. Into the divided Sneetch world comes an entrepreneur with a fancy machine. He's Sylvester McMonkey McBean, and for an ever-escalating price, he can add or remove stars on bellies. He manipulates both groups of Sneetches until he's taken all their money. Only then can they accept the wisdom of a rule-breaking child, Standlee, who has made friends across the border, and learn to live together.
Children's Theatre design teams have labored long and hard to create the zany Seussian look, in costumes, sets, and props. All 24 actors except Sylvester McMonkey McBean are clad in yellow body suits accented with fur on their bellies and ankles, topped with various repurposed yellow garments: a plaid shirt here, a sparkly mini skirt there, an apron, a work shirt, etc. etc. They all have bright yellow wigs in multiple crazy styles. Furry purple pampas grass adorns the dunes on the dandy swirly beach, divided straight down the middle by that red line. The beach rakes nicely up to a skewed lifeguard chair. Factory elements (for the havenots) and party décor (for the privileged) slide swiftly on and off. MacBean's machine is a multi-colored van that opens up to deploy two fabric tunnels in which bellies are remade to be starred or starless, depending on the fashion of the moment. All is colorful, full of whimsy and joy, and provides essential dressing for the moralistic parable that is the plot.
Current events make it obvious that we still neEd Moralistic parables and artists who can make them palatable. This rendering is downright delightful. The education department at Children's Theatre has done a terrific job of creating a developmentally appropriate program page that defines privilege, prejudice, and discrimination in a few words and poses questions families can use to take the learning further.
THE SNEETCHES: THE MUSICAL runs through March 26. And CTC's love affair with Seuss continues: two productions based on his work (...GRINCH and THE LORAX) are slated for the 2017-18 season.
Photo credit: Dan Norman