From `Seussical’ To Lose-ical To Renew-sical
Does Horton Hear a Hit?
By FRANK RIZZO
Courant Staff Writer
April 20 2003
Is it possible to make a Broadway musical that laid a giant egg – make that a giant green egg, with ham – succeed on the road?
That’s just what the producer of the national tour of “Seussical: The Musical” faced when he decided to take the famous flop – which lost more than $10 million during its aborted New York run – and revamp it, re-stage it and send it out across the country.
In its favor, it has Cathy Rigby, who was cast in the show’s final Broadway days, as the Cat in the Hat, who acts as a friendly wise-guy guide into the world of Dr. Seuss and his fanciful characters, such as Horton the Elephant, Mayzie LaBird and Gertrude McFuzz. The touring production plays careerbuilder.com Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford for a week beginning Tuesday.
You can’t get more appealing than Rigby, who has toured in such family-oriented musicals as “Peter Pan” and “Annie Get Your Gun.” In “Seussical,” the 50-year-old gymnast-turned-actress not only makes the character more accessible with her frisky persona and audience asides, she even makes the Cat fly. (The new production is filled with flying effects, skills Rigby mastered over the years in “Peter Pan” – a show she will revive next year.)
But it takes more than one star to turn a show around.
Tour producer Ken Gentry – who transformed “The Civil War” from a Broadway bomb to a successful national company – got the rights to redo “Seussical” for the road and spent $2 million to launch this revised version.
“There was a nice show hidden in there,” says Gentry of the Broadway production.
He says “Seussical” was the right product for a significant and under-served family market. After all, how many times can you see “Annie?” (Plenty, according to the Shubert Theater in New Haven, which reports that its umpteenth presentation of that musical chestnut still pulled in the crowds this season.)
The family-show menu is pretty thin. (Gentry will continue to tap that market next year with non-Equity road companies of “Oliver!” and “Oklahoma!”)
Gentry had a hunch “Seussical” would be more welcome at subscription-heavy theaters across the country than it was in New York. But the show needed a fresh start that would defuse the stigma of a traveling Broadway bomb.
“We went right back to what [the creators] were after in the first place,” says Gentry, referring to a Toronto workshop production in 2000 that, by all accounts, was a smash and had its big-name producers giddy with anticipation of a blockbuster.
But at some point in 2000, between that bare-bones reading and the Boston tryout that fall, the show’s essence disappeared. Instead, the Broadway-bound musical became confusing with its multiple stories. (The creators were allowed to tap into the Seuss canon, except for the story line of “The Cat in the Hat,” for which the rights were sold to Hollywood. The Mike Myers movie is due in November.)
Besides the many narrative threads, the production’s stylistic choices were more weird than wonderful. Critics, first in Boston and then on Broadway, dismissed the messy show, which closed after six months, despite replacing David Shiner’s Cat with marquee names like Rosie O’Donnell and then Rigby.
A More Playful Cat
“It had a lot of cooks,” says Christopher Ashley, who directed the new version. Working with lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, the team that wrote the book, Ashley was joined by a new team of designers (who went for a more Seuss-like look) and Rigby – who is also a producer of the show.
The show hit the road last fall in Indianapolis and found that audiences responded. The creative team continued to fine-tune over the next few stops until satisfied with their new creation.
With just minor adjustments to Ahren-Flaherty’s melodic songs, the dropping of a lot of dance music and tweaking of the text, the new show was transformed. The key, says Ashley, was having a clearer focus and two characters the audience could more easily identify with. One was Rigby’s considerably warmer and more playful Cat – who connects with audiences, with more interaction, improvisation and flying than in the original production. The other was JoJo, a boy plucked from the audience to enter the world of the Seuss on stage. “We wanted the kid coming to grapple with the power and dangers and joys of his own imagination,” says Ashley, who directed “Lucky in the Rain” and “They All Laughed” at Goodspeed Opera House and “The Country Club” at Long Wharf Theatre. On Broadway, Ashley scored with the revival of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “The Rocky Horror Show.” He’s now working on Bette Midler’s fall concert tour. (Mister D: Once again Mister V said the show is slated to begin in Detroit on October 9th…altho this CAN CHANGE)
Though there is an inherent appeal due to the Seuss name, the show is not easy to explain to potential ticket buyers, Rigby says. “It’s Seuss. It’s like explaining Salvador Dalí. That doesn’t mean it’s complicated to watch. It has all the elements that any good show has; it’s just done in a quirky Seuss-style.”
Once audiences see it and go with the flow of the production, it all makes playful, silly sense.
Did the experiment of turning around the show work?
The reviews in other cities have been kinder than those of the original production, and the show has performed well at the box office, if a bit unevenly. And, of course, there’s a wide range of Seuss souvenirs raking in cash at intermission.
“We will get our investment back,” Gentry says of the tour, which ends this summer, after which it will be downsized as a non-Equity tour for the hinterlands.
“I think [the experiment worked],” says Rigby. “Now it’s a great show for universities, for high schools, for civic light operas. There are so many wonderful characters. It’s simple in its set, costumes, and it has many wonderful characters. And it’s just got the greatest values and the most wonderful music. I think it’s a show that will last forever.”
Copyright 2003, Hartford Courant