An appreciation: Energetic, nonstop 'Seussical' takes stage at Mt. Lebanon High School

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Oh, the thinks you can think

If you're willing to try ...

So just what is this thing called "Seussical"? Judging by last week's very entertaining production at Mt. Lebanon High School, it's a rainbow of tunes, a jukebox of colors and a kaleidoscopic jumble of characters and stories.

You can't defend it as narrative or structure. Instead, it's like an explosion in a children's fantasy, with bits of stories, characters and themes tumbling about, then settling into something that could be created only by chance or dreamed up by an unusual genius like ... well, Dr. Seuss. Or a bright, inquisitive child.

It isn't actually "thinks" that "Seussical" celebrates, so much as the rampant imagination. And this imagination is especially jazzed up because "Seussical" is cobbled together from a fistful of books, starting with a central plot borrowed from "Horton Hears a Who!" and "Horton Hatches the Egg," the lovelorn Gertrude McFuzz from her own story and a bossy emcee from "The Cat in the Hat," then all that enriched with characters, songs and allusions from more than a dozen other books.

"Seussical" has had its own jumbled history. After a disappointingly short Broadway run in 2000, it was somewhat simplified for two national tours, both starring Cathy Rigby as the Cat, and slimmed down further for an Off-Broadway version, then a one-act version and even "Seussical the Musical, Jr." As far as I can tell, Mt. Lebanon did the touring version, but to parse out all the variants would take a doctor of Seussology.

What some call a jumble, one could more justly call a nonstop circus midway, with Horton the Elephant, Gertrude, JoJo, Mayzie LaBird, the Wickershams and all the Whos (including the Grinch and Cindy Lou) in continuous motion.

The book and score were created jointly by composer Stephen Flaherty and wordsmith Lynn Ahrens, and it is entertaining to remember that Mr. Flaherty grew up just a few miles away in Dormont.

Oh, the thinks you can think

In the blink of an eye!

At the center is Dr. Seuss's anarchic imagination. For a central plot, there's the saving of Whoville and Gertrude's dogged pursuit of Horton across mountains and oceans. And for a central philosophy there's Dr. Seuss' line, reminiscent of a famous Pittsburgh philosopher, Fred Rogers: "A person's a person, no matter how small."

That impeccable sentiment is pretty much always at the subversive heart of Dr. Seuss's books, with their wild journeys ending up safely at home. In fact, after all the hoopla along the way, "Seussical" works best for me when it exemplifies that same sentiment: I loved the shocked silence that settled over the big auditorium when self-obsessed Mayzie callously abandoned her egg to Horton's care. Dr. Seuss is never afraid of touching on darker fears and desires.

Mr. Flaherty's music lives up to its inspiration by drawing on modes from dance rhythms to brass band, razzmatazz and circus, and Ms. Ahrens' sprightly, nutty, ear-tickling lyrics (as I once described them) rely heavily on Dr. Seuss but weave in some of her own.

As is often the case with high school musicals, the Mt. Lebanon sound system had some trouble with those lyrics, since it was generally geared up for color and noise. But visual and audible color, energy and movement were at the heart of the show's appeal.

For this, you need a big, energetic cast, and Mt. Lebanon had it, so big I lost count. The zest and continuity of the ensemble was a real attraction, without any of that sag when some seem to think no one's looking: They were continually "on." This must owe something to director Carol Froelich and choreographer CeCe Kapron (and student directors Michelle Coben, Christa Federico and Rachel Heyse), but it rested primarily on that big ensemble itself.

For 14 of the lead roles, Mt. Lebanon had two different casts, labeled Blue and Gold - but not for the Wickersham brothers, where the physical abandon of Trevor Buda, Thomas Cadle and Will Hughes could hardly be duplicated.

I happened to see the Gold cast, which means I enjoyed the sardonic command of Gabe DeRose-Elbaum (Cat), stalwart sweetness of Mark Klemencic (Horton), plaintive twinkle of Abby Rogers (Gertrude) and spunk of Mairead Roddy (JoJo).

There was also the sassy flash of Caitlin Crowley (Mayzie), comic pathos of Nate Steinhauer and Julia Teti (Mayor and Wife) and colorful vocal presence of Michaela Ramicone, Sarah Mickey and Rena Kobelak (the bird trio) - among others.

If I couldn't count the cast, that goes double for the costumes designed and coordinated by Maresa Bahr and Kathy Thompson. Equally colorful was the set by Greg Kuhar, moved expeditiously by a capable stage crew.

But nothing was bigger than the orchestra pool of about 180 students, of whom some 60 played at any given performance. Conductor/producer Robert Vogel described the challenge of playing nearly continuous music, saying he thinks of this show as really just two songs: "Act 1 and Act 2."

Oh, the thinks you will find

Lining up to get loose.

Oh, the thinks you can think,

When you think about ... Seuss!

"Seussical" ran May 8-11.

neigh_south - highschoolmusicals

Post-Gazette senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.


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