Seussical: The Musical: Insipid Cat, Right-Wing Propaganda

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Okay, I know what you're thinking. Why would Rosie O'Donnell be hauled in to replace David Shiner as the Cat in the Hat for 24 performances of Seussical in January if the show weren't already in serious trouble less than a month after opening? Can O'Donnell, not known for her gymnastic prowess, really handle a role conceived for one of the theater's most accomplished physical clowns? And what has the whole thing got to do with the revolting right-wing politics now creeping back into power? Funny you should ask.

The critical dope on Seussical has been that it tries to do too much in too glitzy an idiom and ends up subverting the gentle and intimate spirit of the material. That's certainly true but not the whole story. I feel obligated to mention that my eight-year-old son Oliver, who went with me, thoroughly enjoyed the show, with the exception of the Cat in the Hat, which he thought was extraneous. "He's really just a man in the hat," quoth Oliver, piercing to the heart of why the O'Donnell gambit will be little more than a p.r. blip, regardless of what she does onstage.

Seussical has a certain resilient charm, but none of it comes from its insipid feline MC, whose irrelevant displays of generic shtick (pratfalling, shooting silly string at the audience, interviewing a kid in a box seat like a talk-show host) obviously stem from the producers' nervousness that charm alone wouldn't sell tickets. The Cat is barely characterized as Seuss' famous and beloved trickster, the spirit of mischief when parents are away; he exists only to produce sufficient cheap yuks to make people feel the show is as much fun as television. Rosie to the rescue indeed.

Seussical's charm?such as it is?comes mostly from Kevin Chamberlin as Horton the Elephant and a few other actors whose investment in Seuss' world of innocent discovery is strong and sincere enough to rise above all the razzle-dazzle of vulgar overproduction. Portly, warm, affable and dressed in nothing more elaborate than a gray, wrinkle-pattern, pajama-like outfit, Chamberlin is positively elephantine before he even enacts Horton's stories (of which more in a moment). His genial spirit of plodding faithfulness and adventurousness is the best reason to see the show.

Janine LaManna is endearingly driven as Gertrude McFuzz, the bird who regrets her single tail feather and who is inexplicably sweet on Horton here. A pure-voiced child actor named Anthony Blair Hall does a fine job making a human being of the formulaically written role of JoJo, an ostensibly naughty and lonely Who-kid who comes to think of Horton as an intrepid alter ego. And Stephen Flaherty (best known for composing the music in Ragtime) has provided the show with two memorable songs (a multitude in today's musical field): a sweet duet for JoJo and Horton called "Alone in the Universe" and a ballad called "It's Possible," used to extol the marvels in McElligot's pool and the powers of the imagination.

The producers alone know who is really responsible for the hodgepodge of a book as it currently stands. Early on, the good doctor's widow reportedly approved the strategy of blending numerous Seuss stories rather than choosing a few for separate treatment, but she certainly had no say in the power struggles prior to the New York opening that resulted in key firings and emergency replacements. The result is a scattered, unwhimsical and utterly forgettable mishmash that tries to paper over its senseless spots with obscure incongruities, gratuitously rowdy songs and annoyingly busy production numbers. If anyone can tell me what Green Eggs and Ham has to do with military drilling, or why the Grinch stands muttering on a dais during his single understated appearance, or what a chorus of sleek, buff men in skimpy vests and tight leather pants has to do with the monkeys who torment Horton, I'll be grateful.

Which brings me back to the subject of revolting politics. On top of everything else, the committee at the helm of Seussical planted a crypto-pro-life message at the center of this family event. Seuss wrote two different books about the faithful Horton: Horton Hatches the Egg, in which the elephant spends months obstinately sitting on an egg that an irresponsible bird has abandoned, and Horton Hears a Who!, in which he guards a clover on which he alone hears the voices of a minuscule people called Whos. In combining these stories, the musical forces Horton to choose between his two charges, because the clover is stolen from him and he can't keep searching for it without endangering the egg. Blithely and righteously, he thus chooses to value a single unborn life over the vibrant, developed life of an entire populous town. On the subway ride home, I proposed to Oliver that our family donate a chunk of our holiday-gift money to NARAL this year.

Richard Rodgers Theater, 226 W. 46th St. (betw. B'way & 8th Ave.), 307-4100.

Jane Eyre: The Musical
By John Caird and Paul Gordon

Nothing so sly (or careless) is operating beneath the surface of John Caird and Paul Gordon's three-hour musical version of Jane Eyre. That's because little in it delves beneath surfaces at all. This is a literary adaptation only in the most nominal, mercantile sense, pitched entirely at a middlebrow public that has vaguely heard of Charlotte Bronte's novel but has either never read it or never thought it substantially different from a cheap Harlequin romance. There are a number of excellent singers in the show (notably James Barbour and Elizabeth DeGrazia), but its music is exceedingly ordinary and repetitive, its storytelling crass and plodding, and its sets astonishingly dull and dreary (featuring dark mobile screens for somber projections?design by John Napier). For all that, like a trite sentimental movie, it tugs your heartstrings anyway, leaving you annoyed that its shallow strategy retains power even for those who see through it.

The melodramatic skeleton of the book is all there: the grim, early 19th-century, orphan childhood, the job as a governess at Thornfield Hall, the near-marriage with the master Edward Rochester, the revenge of the mad wife locked away in the attic, Jane's breathless escape and return after receiving a telepathic message. All the details that lent psychological subtlety and nuance to this core, however, have been carefully trimmed away, as if they were never of real interest. Ostensibly "plain" Jane is played by the conspicuously pretty Marla Schaffel. She doesn't confront people here with the content of the books she has read, or reveal the depth of her fantasies through florid descriptions, as Bronte's Jane habitually does. And her momentous life decisions are all simplified to black and white non-choices.

Those who thwart her are hateful villains from the second they appear, those who befriend her kindly stereotypes. The only exceptions are the two male love interests: brooding, Byronesque Rochester (Barbour) and the stiff Calvinist minister St. John Rivers (Stephen R. Buntrock), whom book-writer Caird has inexplicably given the task of caring for Jane's dying rich aunt, Mrs. Reed. Perhaps this change was intended to make Jane's sudden financial inheritance near the end seem less contrived (in the original, it comes not from that hated aunt but from an uncle Jane never met). If so, this was a lot of trouble taken for nothing, since the audience couldn't care less about such plausibility questions as their mushy minds are hurtling toward a foreordained happy ending, just as no one cares about fine architectural principles while watching a marble negotiating a marble run.

Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 W. 47th St. (betw. B'way & 8th Ave.), 307-4100.

Princess Turandot
By Darko Tresnjak

If you're looking for more satisfying light holiday entertainment from a reworked classic, I suggest the Blue Light Theater Company's Princess Turandot, which I unfortunately saw too late to praise at the length it deserves. Written and directed by Darko Tresnjak?who also directed last season's elegant production of Philip Barry's Hotel Universe for Blue Light?this is a delightful adaptation of the old Gozzi fable (not the Puccini opera) that blends shadow puppetry, commedia dell'arte, Brechtian storytelling, juggling, gymnastics and more. Part of its charm is its modest zaniness, despite its profusion of methods, with colorful sets and costumes that do a great deal with simple, low-tech means, and clever actors who work marvelously idiosyncratic detail into broad characterizations. Especially if you thought, as I did, that the ostentatious zaniness in Julie Taymor's Gozzi adaptation on Broadway, The Green Bird, often grew tiresome, I recommend a visit (with your kids, if you have any) to this joyously theatrical and inspiringly wacky event.

McGinn/Cazale Theater, 2162 Broadway (76th St.), 206-1515, through Dec.30.

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