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July 23, 2014

'Seussical': Silly fun with an energetic ensemble

The whimsical "Seussical" unleashes joy and wonder in a rainbow sprinkles and marshmallow fluff experience.

The high-energy musical premiered Tuesday night at the Muny Opera, showcasing an inspired creative team who turned this appealing all-ages entertainment into a rollicking multi-media kaleidoscope.

Featuring a sprawling, snappy ensemble whose revelry was contagious, "Seussical" is a treasure trove of fanciful childhood memories, a love letter to its one-of-a-kind author Dr Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel), and a look back at beloved children's books of yore.

Composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty ("Ragtime," "Rocky the Musical") also worked on the script with Monty Python's Eric Idle before the show's Broadway debut in 2000. Since then, it has been retooled and is very popular in schools and community theater, but was never seen in regional theater until now.

And it's a doozy of an interpretation. Ingenious director-choreographer Dan Knechtges must be a whirling dervish, for his flights of fancy were very peppy.

The bliss of the Muny kids and teens in the cast was evident. I had my eye on a little boy, wearing glasses, who was center stage in the front line for the finale, and he twisted the night away with great abandon.

The cast appeared to be having an amusement-park outing time of their lives. The crisp, splashy numbers were enhanced by the brilliant hues assembled by costume designer Leon Dokowski.

Scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan used pops of color and oversized books to create a fun playground.

Tech was a true star in these efforts, with lighting designer Rob Denton giving the old razzle-dazzle using vivid fireflies and illuminating flashlights, and video designer Nathan Scheuer creating a canvas for Seuss-like drawings, a starlit night and the Cat-cam on the LED screen, its most effective use yet.

The show featured quite a bit of audience interaction, with the singular sensation John Tartaglia displaying effervescent showmanship as The Cat in the Hat. He's the comical narrator who ties a jumble of characters in the Seuss universe together.

Tartaglia, Tony nominee for "Avenue Q" who got his start on "Sesame Street," wowed Muny audiences as the Genie in the pre-Broadway tryout of Disney's "Aladdin" in 2012. He's been back to direct "Shrek" and "Tarzan," but this hammy role allows him to be the closest thing to a live animated character.

In the trademark costume, he frolics on stage and throughout the audience, injecting local references and imitating a cadre of personalities. His "How Lucky You Are" is crisp and a catchy tune that may get in your head.

The clever story features rhyming dialogue and snippets from Dr. Seuss's books, mostly from "Horton Hears a Who" and "Horton Hatches an Egg," with "Yertle the Turtle," "The Butter Battle Book," and the most familiar refrain of 'Green Eggs and Ham."

Horton the Elephant, charmingly played by Stephen Wallem ("Nurse Jackie"), in a performance far superior than his "Shrek" last year, finds Whoville on a speck of dust and bonds with JoJo, the daughter of the mayor. Abigail Isom is a spunky teen with a strong voice who captivates in this production. Their duet "Alone in the Universe" was heart-tugging, a nice moment.

The funny females are Kirsten Wyatt as Gertrude McFuzz, a true-blue pal of Horton's who is upset with her lack of plummage; Liz Mikel as Sour Kangaroo, the diva-esque doubter; and Julia Murney as the vain, wayward Mayzie La Bird, who gives her egg to Horton to hatch.

Wyatt sounds like Kristen Chenoweth, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Mikel displays a powerful voice in her gospel-infused numbers, and Murney, like Wallem, is much stronger than she was as Fiona in "Shrek."

Other standouts include Chastity Jones as a young kangaroo; Raymond J. Lee, Blakely Slaybaugh and Omari Tau monkeying around as the Wickersham Brothers; and Gary Glasgow and April Strelinger as the Whoville Mayor and his wife.

It's silly, goofy fun, with zany characters and a sweet disposition. How can you not smile with songs like "Oh The Thinks You Can Think!" and "The Circus McGurkus"?

What: "Seussical"

Where: The Muny

When: 8:15 nightly through Monday

Tickets: www.muny.org; 314-361-1900

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