Imagination Stage’s production of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s Seussical (co-conceived with Eric Idle), based on the words of the one-and-only Dr. Seuss, is possibly one of the best shows I’ve seen at a Washington, DC children’s theatre. Originally premiering on Broadway in 2000 to mixed reviews, Janet Stanford’s (Director) production is modeled after the touring and Off-Broadway versions (which followed the Broadway production) that streamlined the storylines and focused the attention on fewer characters, making it more appropriate for children. Stanford has brought together a brilliant cast to bring Dr. Seuss’ words to life and, with the imaginative choice to set the story in the 1950s (in a world that’s not so specifically ‘Seuss-land’) with cast members appearing both human and animal-like, it’s easy for even the youngest audience members to see how the lessons Jojo, Horton, and Gertrude learn in the story apply to their own lives – even those lucky young kids (and their parents) who get to participate in the story from their on-stage seats. Strong production values combined with the cast’s strong singing, dancing, and acting also make this creative production entertaining for adults.
Seussical involves a young child, Jojo (played by either Simon Diesenhaus or Svea Johnson, with Diesenhaus playing the role at the performance I attended), who “thinks” and dreams up the Cat and the Hat (Jamie Smithson) when he finds the iconic red and white-striped hat. The Cat and the Hat, serving as a narrator/commentator of sorts, introduces him to the world of Dr. Seuss’ characters and brings him into the story as the young offspring of the leaders of Whoville. Following the rousing opening ensemble number “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think,” Jojo immerses himself into the world of Horton the Elephant (Matthew A. Anderson), Gertrude McFuzz the Bird (Shayna Blass), Mayzie the Bird (Kirstin Riegler), Mayzie’s friends (two Bird Girls and three Wickershams – Jamie Ogden, Marieke Georgiadis, Matthew DeLorenzo, Matthew Schleigh, and Christopher Wilson), and the Sour Kangeroo (Ayanna Hardy, who sings the diva role quite well).
Gertrude, an awkward bird with too few feathers in her tail, is desperate to stand out like the beautiful Mayzie and grab Horton’s attention. However, Horton largely ignores her since he is too preoccupied with a speck of dust he found, which he is convinced is home to tiny people in trouble (the Whos of Whoville) since he hears them (particularly Jojo) speaking. Gertrude goes to a doctor and gets a pill to make her feather tail bigger, fluffier, and beautiful. Horton eventually notices her, not because of her beautiful tail, but because she helps him out of a pickle after Mayzie asks him to take care of her egg so she can go have fun on Palm Beach. Horton remains committed to taking care of Mayzie’s egg and helping out the people of Whoville and all involved learn a life lesson on perseverance, acceptance, the need to help others, and the need to use your imagination and be creative.
The triple-threat cast is uniformly excellent, but several of them have standout moments deserving of specific mention. Smithson, as the omnipresent emcee the Cat in the Hat, is delightfully zany throughout the show and is the epitome of creativity. Diesenhaus, the youngest member of the cast, is not cloying in the way many child actors are and holds his own against the older cast members as the curious and inquisitive Jojo. His strong voice and natural performing ability make the songs “It’s Possible” and “All Alone in the Universe” all the more engaging. Riegler is appropriately self-absorbed, confident, and larger-than-life in her portrayal of Mayzie. Copious amounts of personality shine through in her number “Amayzing Mayzie,” which also showcases her strong belt.
The standout performances, however, belong to Shayna Blass as Gertrude McFuzz and Matthew A. Anderson as the lovable Horton the Elephant. Blass, a recent American University musical theatre graduate, is endearing as Gertrude McFuzz and demonstrates considerable song interpretation skills in the heartbreaking “The One Feather Tale of Miss Gertrude McFuzz” and the upbeat “Amayzing Gertrude.” As Gertrude gains more confidence in herself, Blass’ performance appropriately becomes broader and showier. I look forward to following Shayna’s career as it progresses, but she makes her mark in the Washington, DC theatre scene with this performance. Dweebish, awkward, and endearing are all words that I would use to describe Anderson’s compelling performance. His rendition of "All Alone in the Universe” is heartbreaking, personal, and involved.