Things are getting busy in the Jungle of Nool — and we’re not just talking about the selfless missions of Horton the Elephant, the mischief of the Wickersham monkeys and the meddling antics of the irrepressible Cat in the Hat. Hobnobbing with those and other jungle residents these days are Washington area children — theatergoers-turned-participants in the crowded, lively “Seussical” at Imagination Stage.
“Seussical,” of course, is the musical that Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty whipped up from the books of Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Imagination Stage has staged the young-audiences-focused version of the show before: in 2005, with Kathryn Chase Bryer directing. This time, Artistic Director Janet Stanford does the honors, aided by a wholly new cast and creative team. There’s also a new gimmick — sorry, I mean vision — involving audience participation. A few ticket-holders now sit onstage during the production. Children are recruited to serve as jurors when Horton (Matthew A. Anderson) is put on trial. A few lucky tykes in balcony seats get to drop ping-pong-size pills — the tail-lengthening medication favored by the bird Gertrude McFuzz (Shayna Blass) — down to performers who catch them. And so on.
Maybe the youngsters are enjoying this shtick — they all looked rather bemused at the performance I attended — but the conceit further clutters a musical that, as written, is already a grab bag of plotlines and personalities. Anderson’s wistful Horton is the heart of the show: Plodding around with a pink clover in his hand, solemnly singing “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” this altruistic pachyderm is truly affecting. And when Anderson’s Horton laboriously clambers up a tree to egg-sit for the irresponsible bird, Mayzie (a perky Kirstin Riegler), and proceeds to look anxious, bored, sleepy and stoical, by turns, he’s hilarious.
But Horton’s narrative has to fight for air, what with the other business unspooling pell-mell around the lacy rocks of Tom Donahue’s set. Still, while the overall vibe is hodgepodge, many of the individual characters come across in strong colors. You have to love Blass’s sad, dorky Gertrude, especially when she proudly parades her medically enhanced tail — resembling a mile-long pink feather boa — in front of the oblivious Horton. And the rich, sassy singing of Ayanna Hardy’s Sour Kangaroo is the show’s musical highlight.
Jamie Smithson doesn’t bring much pizazz to the Cat in the Hat, a character who keeps turning up like a bad penny — riding a tricycle here, dancing a tango there. More engaging is Simon Diesenhaus, a sixth-grader who infuses JoJo of Whoville with an air of ebullient dreaminess. (Simon shares the role with Svea Johnson, who played Gretl in Olney Theatre Center’s “The Sound of Music”).
Designer Frank Labovitz deftly captures the eccentricity of Whoville with the emerald-green, loopy-leprechaun costumes he has devised for the Whos. The Jungle of Nool residents, by contrast, dress like 1950s high-schoolers, with the girls in puffy skirts, and the Wickersham monkeys in letter jackets. The attire dovetails with Karma Camp’s choreography, which often evokes the kind of dance fads you might have spotted at a sock hop.
That’s fitting enough: What are the earnest Horton and lovesick Gertrude if not misfit high-schoolers in jungle-critter guise? What are the Wickershams and the Sour Kangaroo but a mean, popular clique? No wonder that, in “Seussical,” as in high school, an individual can get lost in the crowd.
Wren is a freelance writer.
music by Stephen Flaherty; lyrics, Lynn Ahrens; book by Ahrens and Flaherty; co-conceived by Ahrens, Flaherty and Eric Idle; based on the works of Dr. Seuss. Directed by Janet Stanford; music director, George Fulginiti-Shakar; lighting, Catherine Girardi; sound, Chris Baine. With Matthew DeLorenzo, Marieke Georgiadis, Jamie Ogden, Matthew Schleigh and Christopher Wilson. Running time of 1 hour 45 minutes. Recommended for ages 4 to 12. Through Jan. 6 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Call 301-280-1660 or visit www.imaginationstage.org.