By Kenneth Jones
20 May 2001
Seussical, the Broadway musical that received three Drama Desk Award nominations and a Tony Award nomination for actor Kevin Chamberlin, closes May 20 after 197 performances and 34 previews.
The Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty tuner, at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, was once a hotly-anticipated musical with good buzz and high expectations: A musical recycling of a slew of Dr. Seuss stories seen through the lens of the Ragtime songwriters seemed like such a sure thing following early workshops. The show was first cooked up by impresario Garth Drabinsky (producer of Ragtime and Show Boat, among others) and was meant to be a Livent project, but Livent fell apart financially.
Cast and observers raved about the early workshops and readings work and SFX, Barry and Fran Weissler and Universal Studios took control of the show after the implosion of Livent.
But During its later development, the family-friendly show became a critic's favorite target and New York theatre writers seemed thrilled to dance on the grave of the show's bad reviews, producer tactics and creative-team changes.
Seussical opened on Broadway Nov. 30 after an out of town tryout in Boston, where a blistering pan in The Boston Globe seemed to be the beginning of troubles. Contrary to the widely held notion that audience word of mouth was negative from the beginning and that gossips and show freaks fueled the flames of the show's demise from the outset, Playbill On-Line noted late last summer that internet chat rooms had many glowing reports and reviews from fans and theatregoers who caught the tryout. However, the intolerant, glib Globe dismissal seemed the sent a shock wave out, and the echo came back that this once-golden project was now "a show in trouble."
In August and September, the costume designer, Catherine Zuber, was fired and replaced by William Ivey Long, the scenic design by Eugene Lee was tweaked and enhanced by Tony Walton, and, by October, producers Barry and Fran Weissler hired director-choreographer Rob Marshall to bring a fresh pair of eyes (a show biz euphemism) to director Frank Galati's staging. Rob's sister, Kathleen Marshall, is the choreographer. Galati (Ragtime, The Grapes of Wrath) left Manhattan for his home turf of Chicago, where his work has been embraced at the Goodman Theatre and Steppenwolf Theatre. He did not look back. His next project is Goodman's staging of John Kander and Fred Ebb's The Visit, in September. Rob Marshall's name does not appear in the Playbill.
TV personality Rosie O'Donnell was a booster of the show and stepped in for month earlier this year, briefly replacing mime and movement artist David Shiner, as the Cat in the Hat. The Weisslers were quoted in papers saying Shiner was gifted but wrong for the show. Shiner and the producers came to an arrangement in February, allowing him to leave the show. Former gymnast and Broadway Peter Pan, Cathy Rigby, played the final months (beginning March 15). A national tour is expected, as the Seuss brand name would likely be embraced across the U.S. A cast album preserves the work of the company.
Aaron Carter, the blond pop-singing heartthrob of the barely teen set, jumped into Seussical March 30 (playing JoJo, a boy of Whoville) and lured a new audience into the Rodgers. Both O'Donnell and Carter stimulated the box office, but not in a way that had lasting impact.
There was talk that O'Donnell would repeat her January February turn as the Cat sometime in the future, but that never materialized.
Seussical earned three Drama Desk nominations, for Outstanding Actor in a Musical (Kevin Chamberlin), Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical (Janine LaManna) and Outstanding Music (Stephen Flaherty). The already demoralized company was disappointed to hear there was only one Tony Award nomination for the show: Best Actor in a Musical, for Chamberlin.
SFX Theatrical Group, Barry and Fran Weissler and Universal Studios are producers of Seussical, a show that critics and producers said needed star names to sell tickets and help anchor the expansive narrative.
Final performances are 2 PM and 6:30 Pm May 20. For tickets to Seussical, call (212) 307-4100.