Saturday, July 30, 2011

People, Puppets and Suess

Soulstice Opens Its New Space With A Beautifully Imbalanced Musical

By Russ Bickerstaff
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There are a few musicals so wildly chaotic and beautifully diverse that they full reality doesn’t hit you until the next day. Suessical The Musical is one of those musicals. Concieved by Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty and Eric Idle, the show is kind of a bizarre musical fusion of a whole bunch of different Dr. Seuss children’s books.

It’s not exactly what Seuss himself would’ve done with a musical, but as he passed away in ’91, we can’t know for certain. When given a bigger platfom to work with, Seuss ended up coming-up with the surrealistic fugue that was The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. He probably wouldn’t’ve been too interested in seeing his shorter works adapted into a big musical, but it’s a lot of fun to watch . . .

And it’s a show that Soulstice Theatre has chosen to open its new space on 3770 S. Pennsylvania Avenue. The big thread hat ties all of the shorter works in the musical together is that of Horton Hears a Who? Which is about, among other things, the folly of assuming that the world is every bit as small as you think it is. More so than the recent First Stage production starring Gerard Neugent, Soulstice Theatre’s production does a really good job of moving back and forth between the world of the very, very small and the world of the infinite. Director Char Manny and company put together a show that, for all its shortcomings, manages to toggle back and forth between claustrophobic and infinite quite deftly. The ability to convey that goes a long way towards making a feverishly bizarre plot arc feel cohesive.

The musical end of the show itself is really interesting. Having seen so many musical shows that have used artificial amplification, its nice to hear a piece that relies more heavily on acoustic vocals than microphones. Music director Art Jaehnke does a good job of finding the right sound for the space . . . even if the musicians occasionally drown out the vocals in more delicate moments. Featuring a sizeable children’s chorus, the production’s staging of Solla Sollew is absolutely haunting. . . very, very beautiful stuff.

There are quite a few individual performances that stand out here. Notables include Stephen Pfisterer in the role of Horton. Wearing a trunk like a necktie, he’s dressed entirely in grey, but the bulk of the performance here falls to a very affable performance on the part of Pfisterer. In a performance that seems to trust the volume of the rest of the production, Pfisterer plays Hoton brilliantly low-key. Heidi Hansfield is charming as the young Who dreaming of something bigger. No surprize that Liz Mistele is intensely entertaining as Gertrude McFuzz . . . her sharp comedic instincts add immeasurably to the big tapestry that Manny has put together . . .

Another part of that tapestry is the work of the puppetry group Angry Young Men. AYM has developed a couple of pieces for the show. And I’m really trying not to read too much into the fact that two of the biggest authority figures in the show are portrayed by puppets. There are a few smaller, less significant characters that are portrayed by AYM puppets . . . but with the Mayor of Whoville (played with the requisite enthusiasm by Josh Perkins) being the only authority not in puppet form, I think the casting is kind of interesting. Yertle the Turtle is a judge presiding over the People Vs. Horton the Elephant. Thanks to AYM, Yertle is able to put in a whimsically sophisticated performance with plenty of emotional articulation without being able to articulate the eyes in any way. Expressive puppetry relies pretty heavily on eye articulation—true, Kermit and afew other muppets were able to get away with zero eye articulation, but it’s tricky to try to have a puppet be truly expressive without eyelids (or at least eyebrows) to raise and lower as the need arises. 

The most impressive recurring puppet in the show is that of General Genghis Kahn Schmitz . . . played by Connor McClelland. He strikes the right balance of being official and being expressive. I found myself looking back at General Schmitz in a number of different crowd scenes and he’s actually more expressive in some of those scenes than non-puppet members of the ensemble. Thsre’s a big final sentimental moment between Horton and Gertrude. Look over at the General and there he is apparently wiping away tears. Thanks to Angry Young Men for giving this production a little something more. Very, very  cool stuff.

Soulstice Theatre’s production of Seussical the Musical runs through August 6th at the Keith Tamsett Theatre. 

 

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