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The Long Road From Whoville to Broadway

Theater * The characters keep changing onstage and off, but 'Seussical' is set to open Thursday.

November 27, 2000|BLAKE GREEN | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — After all those years of being stuck on a page, did you ever think you'd see me on stage?

--The Cat in the Hat, in the new musical "Seussical"


The other day, Rob Marshall, the director who's taken over the helm of "Seussical," applied the word "face lift" to the doctoring on the show he's been doing in recent weeks. The musical has had almost as difficult a gestation period as that egg in the nest tended by Horton the elephant in one of the whimsical but meaningful Dr. Seuss stories that's been adapted for the Broadway stage.

In halcyon days, "Seussical," after a heady workshop in Toronto last year, was an odds-on favorite for the fall season's mega-hit, its buzz including that high-stakes phrase, "the next 'Lion King.' "

Audrey Geisel, widow of Theodor Seuss Geisel, the creator and illustrator of the charming rhyming tales that have raised generations of children, had been at that workshop and praised the "seamless" quality of the material. "There are so many critters, all with very special stories that have a beginning and end," she says of her husband's work, which had never before been interwoven in such a manner.

However, since the show's out-of-town tryout in Boston in September, a different mood has descended: The costume and set designers, as well as the director, have been replaced, segments of the show junked, new numbers added, music, lyrics and choreography juggled and tweaked, rejuggled and re-tweaked.

Rumors, fueled by that latest addition to the gossip pipeline, the Internet chat room, have been relentless with a particularly persistent and unsettling one about a cast change for the Cat in the Hat, the character who, as narrator, stands at the heart of the show. Another cast problem occurred when the voice of the young actor who played JoJo began to change. His performance in Boston had been one of the few things singled out for praise in a generally unfavorable review.

Along with anxieties--"this has been the most stressful six months of my life," says Kevin Chamberlin, who plays Horton, the hero of "Seussical"--the production's budget ballooned, reportedly by $2 million.

A dispute about royalty payments flared. An expensive advertising campaign designed to give the musical an "edgy" look was considered misguided by people associated with the production. Previews were delayed, and the Broadway opening, originally scheduled for Nov. 9, was pushed back three weeks to this Thursday.

"Have you ever seen a show under so much scrutiny?" Chamberlin was wondering the other day in his dressing room at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. The actor says he visited one of the theatrical chat rooms the other night and "was amazed at the power trip some of these people were on who were criticizing us. I feel like I've been in a long run, and we haven't even opened!"

Indeed, the pre-opening optimism of Boston, before "everyone went into a tizzy," as Lynn Ahrens puts it, seems forever ago. It was a warm evening when the musical, written by Ahrens and her collaborator Stephen Flaherty, debuted at the Colonial Theatre to an audience who included a gaggle of excited children, many festooned with handmade versions of the Cat in the Hat's trademark red-and-white stovepipe chapeau. Among the adults who'd come to see the much-anticipated show were local critics, destined not to be kind, and assorted others with--as Kathleen Marshall, the show's choreographer (and Rob's younger sister), would later call it--"axes to grind."

One ax had already been wielded. "Seussical's" characters were still dressed in the costumes by Catherine Zuber, but she was gone from the creative team, replaced by William Ivey Long, whose colorful designs have continued to evolve in the show through its preview period in Manhattan, although he has refused to comment on his contributions. "There are a million different ways to envision the world of Seuss," says Ahrens, "and ultimately she just had a different vision than we did."

So, apparently did set designer Eugene Lee, who has said that he wanted to avoid "quoting" the Seuss illustrations and chose a dark blue backdrop for the show. Some of his concepts of Seuss' world are still reflected in what's onstage, but supplemented--and brightened--by veteran designer Tony Walton.

"Something viscerally didn't seem right," composer Flaherty says about the way the show looked onstage in Boston. "It's a very tricky assignment. Do you have characters who look like his illustrations or just suggest them?"

"We used tons of the [Seuss] touchstones in our writing," Ahrens says, "so it was a good idea to use certain visual touchstones as well."

Rewrites were already underway. A 10-minute sequence featuring the ecologically conscious Lorax, a Seuss creation Ahrens admits being particularly partial to, would be deleted. Audience interaction routines smacking of David Shiner's performance in "Fool Moon" had cropped up in his Cat in the Hat but "will be gone before New York," someone promised--off the record.

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