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The Cat energizes ‘Seussical’

“Seussical” is a musical with a different kind of menagerie: a forlorn elephant, a bird with only one tail feather and one cool, cool cat.

This is a show that attempts to bring Dr. Seuss’ characters to life, and the result is a cute, whimsical production best suited for kids. Adults might be entertained as well, but at heart this is really children’s theater, despite its Broadway origins.

The Spokane Civic Theatre’s production, directed with lively wit by Jean Hardie, is plenty of fun throughout. This is mainly because of some terrific performances by the main players, especially Greg Pschirrer as Horton, Kendra Kimball as Gertrude McFuzz and Max Kumangai-McGee as The Cat in the Hat.

The Cat is the show’s emcee and resident troublemaker. Kumangai-McGee is perfectly cast in this role, because he’s limber and athletic enough to perform all kinds of physical comedy, including taking a dive into the orchestra pit. His vocal delivery is also limber, allowing him to successfully impersonate a doctor, an auctioneer, an unctuous TV announcer, a pianist and a bailiff. On top of that, he can sing, he can dance and he has a natural command of the stage. He kept this show rolling from start to finish.

Pschirrer’s Horton is the show’s Seussian protagonist, which means he’s a good-hearted, loyal elephant. Pschirrer plays him as a shy, lumbering kind of creature, a little slow and totally lovable.

Kimball plays Gertrude with a yearning that is palpable and endearing. All she wants is for Horton to notice her, but – no such luck. Kimball has a fine voice, put to good use in “Notice Me, Horton,” and the touching “All For You.”

Jordan Butler, 10, is winning and talented as Jo Jo, a young Who from Whoville. Butler displayed an easy knack for comedy.

The sets, costumes and lighting attempt to suggest Seuss drawings without actually imitating them (you cannot, after all, turn an actor into a Seussian elephant). Projected backgrounds helped us believe we were in a Seuss world. Characters stepped out from behind large cutouts of actual Seuss characters.

Still, I don’t think this Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty musical captured – or could possibly capture – the unique appeal of the Seuss books. The main problem is simply that “Seussical” does not have one straightforward storyline. It draws from different parts of the Seuss world – a little Horton here, a little Grinch there – and attempts to cobble a story together out of vignettes.

It’s amusing, but not compelling. In the same way, the score is fun to listen to (and well performed by musical director Gary Laing and a pit combo), but there are no showstoppers. As fun as it is, I can understand why this show never really flew on Broadway.

Also, the Civic’s production was hurt on opening night by a balky sound system that kept cutting in and out. They might have been better off turning it off entirely.

Still, this was clearly a fun show for the kids in the crowd. In fact, when the Cat in the Hat jumped into the orchestra pit, one little boy in the front row ran over to check on him. He didn’t want that cool Cat to be hurt.

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