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Nine Lives

Playhouse on the Square gets Seussical.

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Viva el gato en sombrero! Apparently, Memphis audiences just can't get enough of that Seussical stuff, which is something of a miracle when you consider that when it debuted in 2000, the ambitious Dr. Seuss musical nearly transformed the world's most famous feline into rank road kill in a red-and-white-striped hippie hat. The original production was conceived on a massive scale and combined characters, locations, and plot elements from more than a dozen or so of Theodor Geisel's most beloved stories. And it didn't survive too long on Broadway, either. Reviewers trashed it and called it a snore; some viewers thrashed it and thought it a bore. It was badmouthed and trashmouthed and called consonantal. It couldn't even be saved by Ms. Rosie O'Donnell.

The most common diagnosis provided for the show's critical and commercial failure was that Seussical, while colorful, thoughtfully scored, and based on tried-and-true source material, was also an unfocused mess, crammed with too much Seussishness for anyone's comfort. Although his imagination could be baroque, Geisel was essentially a minimalist. The original Cat in the Hat was written as an exercise for young readers and only uses 236 mostly monosyllabic words, so it's not hard to imagine how Dr. Seuss' simple, delightfully strange imagery was swallowed whole by the glitz and sizzle of a Broadway megamusical.

The show has since been recut, re-arranged, and turned into a serviceable, not entirely uncharming little one-act focusing almost entirely on the stories Horton Hears a Who! and Horton Hatches the Egg, with brief forays into Yertle the Turtle, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Green Eggs and Ham, and I Had Trouble Getting to Solla Sollew.

There's a lot to like about POTS' Seussical and perhaps even a lot to love. But there's plenty to loathe too, especially if you're a purist and don't want anybody messing with the shape of your childhood memories.

Andrew Moore provides a hangdog take on Horton, the philosophical pachyderm who can save an entire planet full of microscopic people but can't save himself from being conned into hatching an egg for a brightly painted bird that would rather have fun. Kim Baker is even more beguiling and tragic as Gertrude McFuzz, a less than fancy bird who loves Horton but can never seem to catch his eye. As the Sour Kangaroo who's out to prove Horton a fool, Jennifer Henry makes the most of Seussical's gospel-tinged score. Courtney Oliver, POTS' able Jane-of-all-trades, has lovingly remounted director Gary John La Rosa's frenetic, whimsically theatrical staging.

On the other hand, it's more than a little disconcerting that the Wickersham Brothers are costumed as though they were part of a gay minstrel show, in broadly stereotypical black leather pants, bar vests, and motorcycle hats. Just as I started to think I might be a dirty-minded so-and-so reading more into the costuming than was actually there, out came the banana-shaped microphones. Adults will giggle, and the kids will only see it as fun. But c'mon, people. What happens in Tuna, Texas, really should stay in Tuna, Texas.

On this rare occasion, Rebecca Powell's costumes are never much to get excited about. The colors pop out against Bruce Bergner's magnificent white-on-white set, but the nonrepresentational outfits are seldom Seussesque and never quite imaginative enough to spark the imagination.

Bergner's icy set reflects every color of the spectrum and is another matter entirely. Using nothing but a jagged squiggle of a stair unit, a pair of dangerously angled ladders, and a tree made from an upside-down ceiling fan, Bergner forces the imaginations wide open with austere silliness and a dash of horror.

And what of the Cat in the Hat? A manic, rubber-faced Eric Duhon gets everything just about right. But this isn't really the Cat's show. Even as a narrator he seems superfluous: a dangling, vaguely menacing trademark bouncing and prancing across the stage.

Through January 11th at Circuit

Playhouse

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