BWW Reviews: CAT IN THE HAT Has the Desired Effect at Children's Theatre Company
Editor's Note: This guest review is courtesy of a colleague of mine that brought her little boy to his first play and the result was charming enough to share with you - and remind you that The Children's Theatre Company has performances of DR. SEUSS' THE CAT IN THE HAT through July 27. Get your tickets now at www.childrenstheatre.org or call 612.874.0400.
BY AMY ZELENKA
My date wore a striped bow tie and clutched our tickets in a soft fist. "Give our tickets to the nice lady," I gently coaxed him as he learned the ins and outs of indulging in a live theater outing. In the light-filled lobby with soft, geometric-shaped seating and posters of beloved children's characters, dozens of other small children were learning to enjoy the performing arts on this Friday afternoon at the Children's Theatre Company. When we entered the Cargill Stage, we saw our seats were upholstered benches and they served as the perfect vehicle to sit up tall like a big boy or cuddle on mama's lap while embarking on a journey to the land of Dr. Seuss.
The story of THE CAT IN THE HAT is one of two siblings who are left to their own devices while their mother, a faceless woman with very little identity, is out on a long and boring afternoon. The cat in the hat arrives at their home and makes a big mess of the home, harasses the pet fish and then invites two friends to cause a ruckus as well. Just as their mother is about to enter the home and see what has happened, the cat offers a surprising solution.
The script of this stage adaptation is as simple as the storybook with very little straying off the original text. One example of where adapter and original director Katie Mitchell chose to wander slightly is when the Cat introduces a "bow" and uses the play-on words to incorporate a hair bow, bow and arrow and lastly a theatrical bow from the waist. This is just the type of word play that parents of small children naturally do while reading books. I believe this added comedic value and still appreciated the fidelity to the original text that was upheld throughout the stage production. The story starts out with such uncomfortable boredom that the audience can feel the agitation. As the story continues and the naughty visitors arrive, anxiety levels are increased. The dreadful moment when the girl realizes their mother is walking up the steps is a sickening feeling as the audience realizes there just is not enough time to repair the disaster that they have on their hands yet somehow it is all resolved. The very last line of the play ends on a cliff hanger allowing the audience to think and imagine the next scene, if there were to be a next scene.
When I entered the theater, I was unsure of the story that this stage production would adopt. There is the original story book by Dr. Seuss and then a Hollywood production was released that embellished the characters and plot with reckless abandon. Lastly, there is a PBS animated program for children that stars THE CAT IN THE HAT and other new characters too. As the stage lights rose, I saw a cartoonish house with two windows. A boy in one and a girl in the other, played Douglas Neithercott and Elise Langer. Rain poured down courtesy of special lighting and sound. I knew right away that this would be the classic story book version of the Cat in the Hat. Even though there is very little action in the beginning of the show, the director kept the pace moving along with various physical examples that illustrated just how bored these siblings are. During more exciting parts of the story, the direction allowed for the actors to move in slow motion with action-style lighting to show the calamity that was about to happen. This choice to keep an active stage during slow parts of the script and a slow stage during active parts of the script was really clever and gave the show a balanced product. One thing that confused me early on in the show was a man wearing a suit standing in the corner of the living room. He seemed to have no purpose until I realized that his hand was in a fish puppet. As the story unfolded, the fish in the bowl became more real and the actor, Gerald Drake, seemed to blend in to the scenery. This illusion was perfect for me.
When Dean Holt arrives as the cat, every preschooler in the theater was engaged. His over-the-top character matched with his nearly-acrobatic physical acting was as close to being a cartoon as real life can be. The acting and choreography was all very precise and physical. Fast paced and large movements can result in a dangerous set but the choreography was so precise that the cast pulled it off without a hitch. The theater itself was set with steeply stacked stadium-style benches that offered a great view for even the shortest audience member who may be seated behind, say, a cat wearing a very tall hat. The stage is a flat, minimalist surface with simple stage set made of household scenery: the cartoony outside of the house seen in the opening scene, the living room with two-dimensional styled chairs and furniture, a wire with picture frames and kites sliding down them during some of the more violent scenes involving Thing 1 and Thing 2. While the script is sparse and there is nearly no speaking at all until well into the show, the sound effects, including slide whistles, boinging springs, and other cartoon favorites add all the animation that a show for preschoolers requires. Peppy, prerecorded jazz music kept a lively soundtrack and played along with the onstage comedy. 3D stereo effects allowed the cat to "fly" around the theater and it was so effective that I noticed more than one audience member looking to the back corners of the house expecting to see that the cat had somehow magically appeared there. The costumes were all in black, white and a little bit of red as accents until Thing 1 and Thing 2 arrive. They are outfitted in unitards with fluffy blue wigs that have the same movement as cotton candy.
When the final scene ended and the lights came up, my date began to cry. He held my hands down to prevent me from clapping as though this might somehow prolong the inevitable. Once we made our way back to the car, he cried the whole way home begging to go back to the theater while snot streamed down his upper lip. This was just the effect I was hoping for and so I give the show full marks to be recommended for anyone who is a two year old, loves a two year old or anyone with the spirit of a preschooler.
Photo: Courtesy Children's Theatre Company Facebook page.