By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 6, 2007
They might not develop interest in the Iowa caucuses, but children 4 and older can absorb a little political consciousness -- of the gentlest and most abstract sort -- at Imagination Stage's latest offering, "Twice Upon a Time: Dr. Seuss' the Lorax and the Emperor's New Clothes."
This sweet and funny musical by the Tony-winning duo of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty nods gracefully at leadership issues and environmentalism, by way of Hans Christian Andersen and the author of "The Cat in the Hat." Under the direction of Nick Olcott, a cast of five gambols through the show's civic-minded whimsy with a grace that's likely to win both the kid and parent vote.
As the title indicates, "Twice Upon a Time" is a loosely linked double bill, the first section -- basically a long musical number -- being an outtake from Ahrens and Flaherty's 2000 "Seussical." It would be hard to nail the Seuss aesthetic without the right visuals, and designer Jos. B. Musumeci Jr. delivers with his set: an airy cartoon realm, with the outlines of red buildings -- seemingly made of Tinkertoys -- sprouting up crookedly from a blue-and-yellow checkerboard floor. The production's three-piece band sits in plain view on the set's upper level, zinging through Flaherty's quirky, helium-light score.
Against this backdrop, the ensemble first enacts the wistful tale of the Lorax (Ryan Nealy), who tries to preserve the last living Truffula trees from the ravages of the Onceler, a greedy industrialist (Bobby Smith). Puppetlike headpieces turn the actors into Seuss's fantastic creatures, including the briefly seen Cat in the Hat (Priscilla Cuellar).
In the playlet's most expressive sequence, lighting designer A.J. Guban sets colored beams blinking on and off, like a game show gone berserk, while the performers' machinelike movements evoke the factories churning through the Truffula trees. What do these factories make? That must-have gizmo, the "thneed." As the Onceler explains to the Lorax, "a thneed's a fine something that all people need!"
"The Emperor's New Clothes" then retells Andersen's famous fable, but with a twist: Emperor Marcus (Danny Tippett) is a 14-year-old bookworm who's more than a little flummoxed by his royal responsibilities. (He's first glimpsed holding a weighty volume titled "How to Be a Better Emperor.") After Marcus receives misleading fashion advice from a devious swindler (a mustache-twiddling Cuellar, with an Inspector Clouseau accent), only Arno the scrub boy (Nealy) can save the day.
Nealy wages a major charm offensive as this working-class rapscallion, while Tippett makes a suitably wide-eyed and nerdy monarch. Their joint musical number "Only a Guy Like You" -- which follows a hilariously mismatched game of charades -- becomes a memorable tribute to the power of friendship. Completing the imperial court are Deena and William (Bernie Alston and a droll, bewigged Smith), the Emperor's sycophantic, appearance-conscious advisers. Costume designer Kathleen Geldard decks everyone out in fairy-tale regalia, doing a particularly artful job with the candy-colored frippery that Marcus favors before the swindler comes along.
In the end, spin gives way to substance; the Emperor learns responsibility, and even the Truffula trees get a second chance. Would that our own political reality offered such grounds for optimism.
Twice Upon a Time: Dr. Seuss' the Lorax and the Emperor's New Clothes, book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and Dr. Seuss; music by Stephen Flaherty; choreography, Michael J. Bobbitt; musical direction, Jay Crowder; props, Marisa "Za" Johns; sound, Matthew M. Nielsen. About 75 minutes. Through Jan. 13 at Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Call 301-280-1660 or visit http://www.ImaginationStage.org.