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BWW Reviews: SEUSSICAL - Dr Seuss Prescribes the Perfect School Holiday Medicine

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Timing is everything in theatre and the Old Carey Performing Arts Club seem to have got it right yet again. With school holidays having arrived, along with the wet weather, Seussical: The Musical could not have come at a better time. Playing at the charming Athenaeum Theatre as part of the 2014 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Seussical provides a wonderfully entertaining experience for kids and those who are kids at heart.

In recent years the tradition in musical theatre has been that of the jukebox musical - the attempt to take a band's play list and weave it into a story that works on stage. Some have worked quite well, with Mamma Mia recently celebrating fifteen years on the West End. Others have not fared as well, with Viva Forever exiting London's Piccadilly Theatre after a run of just over six months. There is always the risk in such productions that the original appeal of the artist's work will be lost in the blatant and sometimes crude attempt at manufacturing a story. With this in mind, the cohesion in Seussical's narrative and plot - which is the literary equivalent of the jukebox musical - is to be admired and enjoyed. With music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Seussical employs over twenty of Dr Seuss' ever-popular children's stories and provides a genuinely entertaining show that operates at both the level of the child and the adult.

Seuss' work possesses messages of moral worth for children and does not trivialize their inner humanity through the delivery. Whether as small as a dust speck or further on in years, Seuss shows a genuine empathy to all regardless of age. After all, 'a persons a person no matter how small.' In a similar vein, parents often remark that children should be seen and not heard. Seussical offers a delightful twist on this adage, with the littlest of them all making 'themselves heard though they still can't be seen...[proving that] they are persons no matter how small'.

Old Carey Performing Arts Club is no stranger to Seussical, having produced it for the 2013 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. That production received numerous awards and critical acclaim. Current evidence suggests their current production of this heart warming tale will be similarly well received and in contention for a similar swag of awards. Seussical: The Musical punches well above its weight, with Joshua Robson (recently in King Kong and cast in the ensemble of the forthcoming Melbourne production of Les Miserables), Emma Russell (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), and Nicholas Renfree Marks (Wind in the Willows for the Australian Shakespeare Company) among the numbers in the cast.

Seussical tells the story of Horton the Elephant (Sam McPartlan), a loveable, friendly, overly sensitive, and ever considerate soul. He is best summed up by one of his lines, "I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant's faithful one hundred percent." Legend has it that an elephant never forgets and Horton typifies this, never letting his promises and pledges slip even when they represent challenges of gigantic proportion. Such challenges are central to the portrayal of the inner beauty of Horton. Upon discovering a minute sized civilization living on a speck of dust, Horton takes it upon himself to ensure their survival. Horton's quest wins him few friends, with only Gertrude McFuzz (Eleanor Horsburgh) recognizing Horton's inner depth.

Sam McPartlan as Horton the Elephant

Both McPartlan and Horsburgh deliver their roles with maximum impact. McPartlan beautifully exhibits the emotional depth of Horton through body language and demeanor that grabs your attention and your heart. Meanwhile, Horsburgh is utterly contagious in her energetic and heart felt portrayal of Gertrude McFuzz. These two characters, each feeling alone in the universe, offer food for thought for the adult audience while being fun for the children. Their respective plights mirror the fallacy of modern society's obsession with cosmetic makeovers and other such superficial offerings. They give cause to reflect on the societal emphasis on superficiality over substance. An emphasis that seems increasingly engendered to those of an ever-younger age despite the potentially deleterious consequences. A telling commentary on the dangers of mob mentality is also observed, with Horton being a reminder that sometimes being all alone in the universe is not necessarily a bad thing - especially if in the process you are being true to yourself.

Seussical's progression is guided by the iconic Cat in the Hat (Mark Yeates), who represents a role similar to that of the Emcee in Cabaret. Yeates is most impressive as the Cat in the Hat, bringing much hilarity to the role and playing it up in a manner that works for both adult and child alike. It is easy to see why he won the Best Lead Male in the 2013 Theatre People Choice Awards for his performance in this role last year. At times the inherent humor of the material threatens to break Yeates' composure, however the tone is such that he is able to roll with these moments and play off them in an effective and witty manner. Yeates also seems to thrive on the opportunity for audience interaction. Perhaps the highlight of these moments is the auction of Horton, which leaves one audience member thinking they have cast the successful bid for the loveable lonely elephant that is central to the story. There is also an apparent and essential chemistry between Yeates and Andreas Katsiroubas (who plays Jojo with an endearing mix of expression, innocence and naivety), with their interactions often informing the plot's progress.

If the strong performances of the cast are not enough, the staging is also noteworthy. While kept simple, working off a black set with minimal props, the show employs a most effective use of lighting to convey the mood and setting of the story. The use of a child's toy chest to aid transitions and scene setting is also simple but remarkably effective. The toy chest is a reminder of the "thinks you can think" when you have the innocence and imagination of a child who knows not the reality of the harsh adult world. A further highlight was the performance of both the beautiful lullaby Solla Solew and Havin' A Hunch, which offered most memorable visual effects. In the spirit of the show the costumes offer a strikingly colourful contrast against the black set and seemingly reinforce the upbeat mood of the show.

Mayor of Whoville (Nathan Slevin) and
Mayoress of Whoville (Sophie Loughran)

Based on this it is perhaps surprising to see that Seussical: The Musical had a short life on Broadway - a run of 198 shows back in 2000-01. The natural beauty of the story and the charming characters make this a show that works. I imagine it is one that will keep on working, as long as children are allowed to dream and adults can remember the innocence of their own childhood. While this current production is limited to a run of ten shows, the timing means that it should once again prove triumphant. Adult and child alike will laugh at and love this collage of Seuss' work. If you are seeing this show at the Athenaeum then let me just say how lucky you are. You will be sad when it is over but you will also be glad that it happened - that you were able to experience the charm and beauty of Seuss.

SUMMARY: You may not like green eggs and ham but you will love this production of Seussical: The Musical. Funny, upbeat, and delivered with joy it is the ideal school holiday treat.

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre, 188 Collins St, Melbourne
Dates: Monday 7th through Monday 21st April (for times, see below)
Tickets: $30 adult, $19 children under 16. $79.80 Group of 4 ($19.95 per ticket)
Bookings: Ticketek, Comedy Fest Box office, at the door
Info: http://www.comedyfestival.com.au/2014/season/shows/seussical
Show Times: Monday 7 April 6:00PM, Tuesday 8 April 2:00PM, Thursday 10 April 11:00AM, Friday 11 April 11:00AM, Saturday 12 April 11:00AM, Monday 14 April 11:00AM, Tuesday 15 April 2:00PM, Thursday 17 April 11:00AM, Saturday 19 April 11:00AM, Monday 21 April 6:00PM.

PHOTO CREDITS: Craig Mills


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