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Theater Review

Musical 'Seussical' Engages Kids Great and Small

JoJo (June Schreiner), right, listens to the Cat in the Hat (Kevin Ray Johnson) in the Reston production of
JoJo (June Schreiner), right, listens to the Cat in the Hat (Kevin Ray Johnson) in the Reston production of "Seussical." (By Joe Douglass)

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By Michael J. Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 15, 2007

If the Reston Community Players have learned one thing the past few seasons, it is that you cannot go wrong putting cute kids onstage.

They're playing to full houses again, and it is probably due in no small part to the cute youngsters onstage in the troupe's production of "Seussical."

This is a bright and lively musical based on the works of good old Dr. Seuss. Plenty of moms and dads are braving missed bedtimes and afternoon naps to bring their kids, some mere toddlers, to see the Cat in the Hat and other familiar figures come to life. They are rewarded with a colorful and well-performed show that keeps a pretty steady hold on kids' attention.

Keeping toddlers from squirming can be a daunting undertaking, especially as this seems to be the original long version of the show that more or less flopped on Broadway. Creators Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty reworked the show, eliminating songs and characters and substantially cutting its running time.

But the Reston troupe gambled on the long version, and it seems to be paying off, both artistically and commercially. The show is still filled with the whimsy and idiosyncratic poetry of Seuss, and the music remains a fairly sophisticated melange of melodic pop-rock and Sondheim-like ballads, with Latin and even some gospel strains. So parents don't risk boredom, either.

The show is almost entirely sung, and whether children can follow the lyrics and keep up with the stories depends on how well they concentrate. Director Haley Murphy and choreographer Heide Zufall create a constant swirl of movement that is simple but appropriate for illustrating Seuss's fanciful world, as created in about 50 books. The costumes are cleverly designed and colorful, and sets convey the surreal sense of that world.

Michael Hoskinson is the heart and soul of the show as Horton, the elephant who discovers tiny creatures called Whos living in a speck of dust. His performance is quite touching, especially in his rendition of the ballad "Alone in the Universe." It is both poignant and haunting -- and this from an actor in a modified elephant costume. Horton is a tender and caring character who reminds us over and over that we need to consider the feelings of others.

Hoskinson is matched by June Schreiner as JoJo, the Whoville boy who gets into trouble for thinking too much (JoJo seems to always be played by a girl, probably to make him androgynous and thus easier for both sexes to relate to). June is a seventh-grader at Reston's Langston Hughes Middle School, but she seems to be one of those kids with outsize talent who eventually could end up on Broadway. With a crystal-clear voice and lungs of steel, she radiates charisma that reaches to the back of the good-sized theater.

She is called on to handle comedy and singing, and does so with polish and charm. JoJo shares scenes with the Cat in the Hat, perhaps Seuss's most archetypical character. Played with raffish edge by Kevin Ray Johnson, Cat is a guide and narrator who pops up from time to time to help keep the storylines straight.

The 25 cast members keep things moving along, and even the youngest handle the simple yet effective dance steps with aplomb. Special mention is deserved for Lisa-Marie Cabrelli as Sour Kangaroo for unleashing a powerful bluesy voice in several songs.

Musical director Matthew Heap's orchestra may sound ragged at times, but the kids probably won't notice. The cartoonish world of Seuss's books provides enough spectacle to hold their attention while they soak in the message "that a person's a person, no matter how small."

"Seussical" continues through March 24 the Reston Community Center's CenterStage, 2310 Colts Neck Road. Performances on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. with a matinee Sunday at 2:30 p.m. For tickets, call 703-476-4500 or visithttp://www.rcp-tix.com. For information, visithttp://www.restonplayers.org.


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