By Steven Suskin
25 Feb 2001
SEUSSICAL Decca Broadway 012 159 792
Translating the collected works of Dr. Seuss to the musical stage is not a simple task; it might even be impossible. There is no purpose in going into the problems and vicissitudes that Seussical The Musical met on the way to 46th Street. Let us simply say that composer Stephen Flaherty was far more successful at finding a musical equivalent to the good doctor's flights of fancy than his associates.
This makes Seussical The CD very much more satisfying than what reached the stage of the Richard Rodgers. Flaherty - with his longtime lyricist Lynn Ahrens — starts off with a strong opening number, "Oh, The Thinks You Can Think" (which, I'll admit, bares a passing resemblance to the title tune from They're Playing Our Song). He then gives us a mysterioso little ditty called "A Day for the Cat in the Hat" (which sounds like a Ragtime leftover, but why not?), and a neat, skewed-rhythm theme for the see-saw "Here on Who." Flaherty and Ahrens offer hope to the world in "It's Possible," and soar to the stars in "Alone in the Universe." "How Lucky You Are" is a tuneful vaudeville turn, which is unfortunately repeated in the show twice too often. "Solla Sollew" is one of Flaherty's prettiest melodies ever. "Havin' a Hunch" is haunting; I found myself humming it the other night, and not on purpose, for about three hours straight. There's also a nifty curtain call called "Green Eggs and Ham."
That's a lot of good stuff, especially for a musical that doesn't come across on stage. There are also some ill-conceived numbers, mind you, but translating the collected works of Dr. Seuss to the musical stage is not a simple task. Flaherty goes on an odyssey of musical styles, ably abetted by orchestrator Doug Besterman and musical director David Holcenberg, and Ahrens does a customarily fine job. (Dr. Seuss, who died in 1991, is listed as co-lyricist on seven of the songs, including three of my favorites - a credit that did not appear in the Playbill.) Kevin Chamberlin makes a lovably forlorn elephant; Janine LaManna sings her poor little heart out as Gertrude McFuzz; and a child actor named Anthony Blair Hall proves a key asset. But just about the whole company sounds fine, including David Shiner, who made this recording under what must have been trying circumstances. (Parenthetical aside: I'm not saying that the man was miscast in his role; but if that's the case, who - I ask you - is to blame? The actor, who seems to have tried to do his best? Or the people who gave him the job?? End of aside.)
Flaherty is, perhaps, the only Broadway composer under the age of sixty who is still writing in the warmly melodic style of people like Richard Rodgers, Jule Styne, and Arthur Schwartz. This is all to the good, resulting in intelligent and enjoyable scores that are capable of warming the heart. Despite this, and through little fault on the part of Flaherty, his first three Broadway shows failed; the small-scale Once on This Island, the moderate-sized My Favorite Year, and the eminently worthy but overblown Ragtime. Seussical, which contains some of his finest work, seems unlikely to change his luck. Meanwhile, he's compiling quite a catalogue of work and we — the listeners — are the richer for it.
Fans of Flaherty might also want to get a copy of his early Lucky Stiff (now available as Fynsworth Alley 5461). This black comedy of a musical played two weeks at Playwrights Horizons in 1988, attracting little attention at the time. Still, Flaherty and Ahrens displayed remarkable ingenuity and great humor despite - or perhaps because of - some highly unlikely source material. (The title character is a corpse.) Lucky Stiff, unexpectedly, turns out to be a good deal of fun. But get your copy of Seussical first.