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On The Set : The Land of Seuss : TNT DOCUMENTARY TAKES A WILD JOURNEY THROUGH THE AUTHOR'S AMAZING LIFE

November 06, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's so hot on the small sound stage where TNT's "In Search of Dr. Seuss" is shooting, you could probably cook green eggs and ham on the floor.

It certainly isn't fit for a Cat in the Hat. Poor Matt Frewer, who plays Dr. Seuss' wily feline, is perspiring buckets attired in a furry cat suit and top hat. Kathy Najimy, who plays the inquisitive reporter in the documentary about the Pulitzer Prize-winning Dr. Seuss (a.k.a. Theodor Geisel), looks equally wilted in a long black dress and high-heeled granny boots.

But their spirits remain high, even after filming the big musical finale, "Oh, the Places You'll Go," countless times. After a quick break, director Vincent Paterson yells, 'Action!' and Frewer and Najimy start singing and dancing to the audio playback.

"It was a lot of fun and hard work," Najimy ("Sister Act") recalls a week later during another break in the action. "Who knew I would have ended up a dancer in the movies? This is like a big ride."

"In Search of Dr. Seuss," which premieres Sunday on TNT, is a wild ride into the life and career of Dr. Seuss, philosopher, humorist, humanist and author of such classic children's books as "Green Eggs and Ham," "The Cat in the Hat" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Geisel died at age 87 in 1991.

The film eschews the typical documentary style of talking heads, film clips and home movies for a hipper vision of live-action and animated film mixed with song.

Najimy's reporter arrives at the Geisel home to get some background on a story she's writing on the private Geisel and his public identity, Dr. Seuss. When she finds the book titled "Open a Book, Open Your Imagination," the Cat in the Hat (Frewer) becomes her self-appointed tour guide through the world of Seuss. Scattered throughout are cameos by David Paymer, Andrea Martin, Patrick Stewart, Andrae Crouch, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd and Robin Williams.

The real stars of the film, though, are production designer Tom Walsh's eye-popping Seuss-like sets and costume designer Merrily Murray-Walsh's clever costumes.

"They are such magical reproductions, I think," Najimy says. "I smell awards for these costumes and sets. They are truly brilliant, and I have never been one to gush over scenery."

Twenty-one sets were created to bring the world of Seuss alive. "They are not so much recreations of his books as collages," Walsh explains. "The whole show is a collage of 50 plus years of his work. We have been working on the project well over 2 1/2 years. It has been an ongoing collaboration of writing the script and conceiving the visuals simultaneously."

Seuss, Walsh says, had an extraordinary use of the palate. "He is absolutely fearless in his use of color and crayon colors, kids colors. He was a big kid who never grew up."

The project has been celebration of not only his work and his life but his books, Walsh says. "This has been great because we have been able to be theatrical like Seuss. It's not real. You are in a non-dimensional sort of space. In leaving it a little bit more free and loose, we don't have to make anything literal."

"The story we chose is not so much him the person but his career as a writer," says producer Joni Levin.

The challenge for Levin and writer Kevin C. Clarke was how to bring Seuss' books to life, "instead of just having someone read," Levin says. "So we have all different ways. We do have Robin Williams doing a reading of 'Cat in the Hat.' That made sense to us. There's a dance number for 'Green Eggs and Ham' and 'Oh, the Places You'll Go," which is the finale of the show. 'Yertle the Turtle' is not so much a dance, but an all-out musical number that's a gospel song. Our main goal was keeping the integrity of all his work."

"In Search of Dr. Seuss" has been a very ambitious project. Perhaps a little too ambitious.

"I think the most difficult thing is that you have got 21 sets and some days you are on two sets," Levin says. "You don't have time for rehearsals because you are dealing with cameos who are committed for the next year-and-a-half and it's getting them for a day here or there. So that kind of pace is grueling. The turnaround of getting the set in and out and not having that extra money for labor ... it always makes it tough."

Najimy acknowledges that she never read Dr. Seuss as a youngster. "I grew up very poor, and so any books that I had were rented from the library," she explains. "They didn't allow Dr. Seuss in the library then. He certainly wasn't in the school libraries. You'll see when you watch this project that they thought he was too wild. They thought he was too risky."

But now she's a huge fan. "I do a lot of political theater," Najimy says. "If someone can merge politics and entertainment, that really excites me. I think he does this. He has a strong point of view."

"In Search of Dr. Seuss" premieres Sunday at 5 and 7 p.m. on TNT; the cable channel will also air "Dr. Seuss" animated specials throughout the day Sunday beginning at 6 a.m. and air specials throughout the month.

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