Whos at Main Street?
Horton the Elephant is a pretty wise fellow. Take, for example, his heartfelt refrain in Seussical, now running at Main Street Theater. The much-maligned pachyderm tells anyone who will listen, "A person's a person, no matter how small." This simple truth makes Horton risk his reputation and freedom to save the Whos down in Whoville, a planet so small that no one in the jungle except Horton knows it's there. With his big ears, he hears the Whos calling for help from their tiny land. But as he listens to the plaintive wailing coming from the "speck" of Who planet, which resides on a clover, his fellow jungle citizens begin to think he's gone off his rocker.
Such is the setup for the Broadway musical based on the delightfully daffy stories of Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss. Perhaps what's most remarkable about the quirky, kid-friendly show is how well the Seuss stories translate to the stage, especially given the recent spate of uninspired films based on Seuss's books. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the Main Street production is carried along on the shoulders of some very capable performers. This is a cast that sparkles with whimsy, joy and, most of all, tenderness, as it brings to life the outlandishly funny characters inhabiting this Seussified world.
The best-known of all Seuss's wickedly inventive beings has got to be that infamous creator of chaos, the Cat in the Hat. And there's probably no Houston actor better suited to playing the naughty feline than the rubbery performer who goes by the single name of JOHNSON (some might remember him as the more ordinary Jef Johnson). JOHNSON slithers out onto the stage on his belly, leaps about on red suede shoes and flings himself through the audience (much to the delight of the kids). The Cat magically morphs from a smoky-voiced piano player to a turbaned witch doctor to a pursed-lipped auctioneer at a snooty place called "Seusseries," all with a twist of his amazingly expressive mouth and a squinch of his hysterically strange eyes. The kids in the audience squeal with every change, and the adults can't help but snicker at this unbridled clowning.
The Cat in the Hat inspires a Who-boy named JoJo to great leaps of imagination. As played by the pint-sized Trey Stoker, JoJo is charming. He bounces about the stage as if his feet were made of springs and sings with gutsy little-boy muscle, flinging his fists out and pitching his head back. JoJo's parents accuse him of having too much imagination -- too many strange "thinks," in Seuss-talk -- and order him to "think some normal thinks." But when JoJo's taking his bath and the Cat in the Hat appears, the kid's imagination promptly runs wild.
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Enough is enough, especially after the whole planet of Whoville gets involved in the Battle of the Butter, a war that some Whos question. (How's that for eerie relevance?) JoJo is sent off to military school, where he must learn to march, sounding off with "I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam I am." The poor kid's life turns painfully lonely. He's as alone as Horton is up in the jungle, where absolutely no one believes his wild story about Whoville. What a lucky day it is when the two find each other and speak across worlds.
Other Seuss characters appear and complicate matters. Especially fine is sexy Mayzie La Bird (Lydia Meadows), who's tired of sitting on her nest and coaxes Horton into helping her with her swanky rendition of "How Lucky You Are." And insecure Gertrude McFuzz (Bethany Daniels), who tries to help Horton, is charming.
At the center of this imaginative heyday is Kregg Alan Dailey's lumbering yet gentle Horton, always good, kind and true to his word. Dailey inhabits Horton with such disarming honesty that even the Grinchiest grown-up will find himself smitten.
Though Seussical is billed as a family show, it's really for kids, especially as directed by Robin Robinson -- that is, with virtually no irony. But there's still a lot here for adults to enjoy. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's lovely libretto and score are influenced by everything from R&B to Caribbean beats, and the music sticks with you in a happy way, long after the show is over.
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