Three seasons ago, Broadway's clash of the musical titans was fought between "Ragtime" and "The Lion King."
Though both were terrific shows, "The Lion King" emerged as the one that will run and run and run. Now, with "Seussical," the "Ragtime" team of composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, designer Eugene Lee and director Frank Galati come back for another bout. This time, they go head-to-head with a movie musical of a children's classic, pitching their take on Dr. Seuss' books against Disney's new "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."
The good news is that they develop their idea as well as anyone could expect. The bad news is that it's not a very good idea in the first place. The problem for Ahrens and Flaherty is that it's hard to add anything to Dr. Seuss' books. They already function a bit like musicals. The drawings are the sets and costumes. The words are the book and lyrics. The rhymes and repetitions are the song and dance. So where's the added value going to come from? The Broadway version of "The Lion King" adds two things to the Disney movie version: The original material is completely re-imagined for the stage, and the show appeals equally to children and adults. "Seussical," for all its energy and invention, does neither of these things. As a result, the entertainment it offers never rises above the level of mild amusement. Even getting to that level, though, takes a huge effort of talent and energy. The book by Ahrens and Flaherty does a reasonable job of knitting a number of different Seuss stories together. Within the general frame of "Horton Hears a Who," they manage to fit the Cat in the Hat, Gertrude McFuzz, the Wickersham Brothers, McElligot's Pool and the citizens of Whoville. Even The Grinch - who presumably had sold all rights to his life story to Hollywood - turns up for a brief appearance. The fusion of Seuss' original rhymes and Ahrens' lyrics is so seamless that it's hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. But the fact that such ingenuity has to go into making some kind of whole out of all the various stories and characters should have set alarm bells ringing. If you have to be very clever indeed just to come up with a coherent story to tell, you have to be blindingly brilliant to make that story truly engaging. "Seussical" just isn't that good. Flaherty's music is a very accomplished, highly polished arrangement of familiar styles from vaudeville and gospel to rock and funk. But it doesn't settle down into a coherent score that could give a shape to the evening. Frank Galati's direction (Rob Marshall, who was brought in to rework the staging, is not listed in the credits) is tight and technically masterful. But he does not create the parallel world of the imagination that the stories demand. Eugene Lee's cartoonish cutout sets (the later contribution of Tony Walton is also uncredited) are attractive and sometimes ingenious. But again, they lack the magic that a fairy tale demands. Kathleen Marshall's choreography also has the same air of technical excellence without imaginative inspiration. Solid performances from David Shiner, Kevin Chamberlain and Janine LaManna and some very fine singing from Sharon Wilkins and Alice Playten can't hide the increasingly obvious fact that the basic idea just isn't rich enough. For little kids who like the books, "Seussical" provides a nice and innocent treat. But for adults looking for something more than a relatively agreeable way to pass the time, it may have the same effect as a bedtime story.
Actually there isn't much wrong with the new musical "Seussical" that a comparatively small earthquake could not put more or less right. In fact, apart from its routine music, limp lyrics and diffuse book, it is really only the concept that goes grievously wrong. It puts whimsy where talent should be.
The show, which opened cheerfully enough at the Richard Rodgers Theatre last night, is absolutely waterlogged with sheer vacuity.
You can see all too painfully what the self-styled conceivers of the show - Lynn Ahrens (the lyricist), Stephen Flaherty (the composer) and Eric Idle (the Monty Python) - thought they were conceiving.
They were taking Dr. Seuss and making his material into a show to which children would be proud to take their parents, even a show to which their parents could venture unaccompanied. A show like "The Lion King."
Unhappily, they forgot that "The Lion King," while not having much genius in the music or lyrics department, has a great book that tells a great story, not to mention a slap-up, innovative production.
The "Seussical" book cooked up by Ahrens and Flaherty proves inept and uninvolving. It takes the childlike innocence of Dr. Seuss and makes it childish, something that even children (perhaps especially children) instantly detect.
Yes, the characters are there: the Cat in the Hat, Horton the Elephant, the inhabitants of Whoville, with even, briefly, that Grinch.
But they are never molded into a cohesive or coherent story. It was probably a hopeless task to begin with, which is precisely why "Seussical" has had such unhappily publicized birthing pains.
Actually, bad word of mouth before opening is by no means always a bad thing - unless you live up to it. "Seussical" does, with its hands tied behind its back.
Take the main story: An elephant hears little people in a speck of dust on a bunch of clover. He vows to protect them, but is tricked by a bird into nesting on an egg, then lands up in a circus and, later, a courtroom.
All ends happily. This theme, with its various crosscurrents, diversions and distractions, is not one many actual human beings are going identify with.
Children? One little girl sitting in front of me at the matinee I attended was asked by her parents if she was enjoying it.
She pulled a wry face, said a quietly polite, "Yes" and continued to look as if she were auditioning to replace the sad-looking urchin in the "Les Miserables" posters.
Ahrens and Flaherty can pull together a decent score - consider their earlier "Ragtime" - but here that magical touch seems to have deserted them. Both music and lyrics are oddly generic and almost memorably unmemorable, quite incapable of throwing out a lifeline to the drowning show.
As for the production, it looked a shade the other side of frantic. The director of record remains Frank Galati, although it appears common knowledge that he was replaced by Rob Marshall, who possibly doesn't want it on his record. I wouldn't either.
The scenery claims to be by Eugene Lee, and in basics, probably is, although it seems it was, as it were, recolored by Tony Walton. The costumes, neat enough, are by William Ivey Long, while the vaguely unimaginative choreography is, and apparently always has been, by Kathleen Marshall.
For the cast, one can have nothing but sympathy. Even Cat in the Hat David Shiner - a triple-threat clown who can't sing, can't dance and can't act, but is still an abrasively capable performer - can hardly be blamed if the hat doesn't fit.
Others come off better - most notably, Kevin Chamberlin is quite adorable as Horton, that moralistic elephant, and Sharon Wilkins blasts bluesily and effectively as the Sour Kangaroo. Michele Pawk scores as the lazy Mayzie and Janine LaManna is enchanting. But this is not a happy show. You'd be better off staying at home and eating green eggs and ham.
Sing out, Louise!'' Mama Rose, the ultimate stage mother, famously ordered her flailing daughter in the great American musical ''Gypsy.'' Mama Rose was big on such dicta, yelled distractingly from the back of the theater in a steel-girded voice. ''Smile, baby!'' Rose called out, and the smiles of Louise and her sister, June, became as wide and glassy as picture windows. Mama Rose clearly did not have the gift of making performers relax.
The spirit of this redoubtable dragon now hovers, it would seem, in the wings of the Richard Rodgers Theater, where the hypercheerful, narcotic ''Seussical: The Musical'' opened last night. You can imagine old Rose whispering fiercely into cast members' ears just before they go on: ''This is it! Sell it! Your lives depend on it!''
And so they parade before sets that positively glare with color: a hard-grinning line of talented singers, actors and dancers who look as if they had just stuck their fingers in electrical sockets. You are unlikely to see such industrious peppiness and such alarmingly fixed smiles anywhere else this side of a Miss America runway.
Who knows? Perhaps those positive-thinking gurus who counsel pageant contestants were brought in for a little last-minute confidence buffing. The songs in ''Seussical'' were written by the gifted musical team Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (''Once on This Island,'' ''Ragtime''), who also share credit for the book; otherwise, it is now difficult to say just who is responsible for what in this force-fed hybrid of stories by Dr. Seuss, the eternally beloved creator of whimsical children's books.
The director of record, whose name still appears on posters and in programs, is Frank Galati, but he is known to have left the musical after its poorly received Boston tryout, to be replaced by the officially anonymous Rob Marshall. Mr. Marshall is the brother of the show's choreographer, Kathleen Marshall (''Kiss Me, Kate''), whose graceful, inventive stamp is strangely missing in the high-impact aerobics offered here. The set and costume designs have also gone through more than one set of hands.
Whoever the many chefs were, the finished product is a flavorless broth. The heightened brightness of all the ingredients -- the eye-searing design palette, the dizzying lighting effects, the bouncy orchestrations, those mega-watt smiles -- perversely meld into a general gray dimness.
Somewhere in ''Seussical'' are the vestiges of a charming, unpretentious show, with a blithe, hummable score, about the transforming powers of imagination. With a small protean cast, conjuring characters out of the air in an intimate storybook-theater setting, ''Seussical'' might indeed be a hit, along the lines of the original Off Broadway incarnation of ''You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.'' (That show's more recent revival was another casualty of Broadway gigantism.)
As it is, the muse of imagination is keeping a low profile in ''Seussical,'' which has a reported budget of $10.5 million. The show isn't dreadful in the manner of this season's most conspicuous eyesore of a movie, ''Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas,'' though it might be more interesting if it were.
''Seussical'' doesn't inspire revulsion or hatred; it doesn't, in fact, inspire any strong emotional response. Numbness creeps over you as you watch it, and you start to think that even a little physical discomfort, like your feet going to sleep, might be welcome as a sign that you're still sentient.
This glazed feeling stems mostly from the gaping divide between the sensibilities of the show's source, the drawings and narrative verses of Dr. Seuss, and that of their presentation. Striking the right tone -- one that would be both child- and adult-friendly -- has apparently been a problem with ''Seussical'' from its early rehearsals.
Hence the sidelining of its original costume designer, Catherine Zuber (whose work was seen as too literal-minded), and set designer, Eugene Lee (too dark), and its director, Mr. Galati (too collaborative). Yet all subsequent adjustments appear to have been based on the most desperate creed of Broadway's shopworn bible: when in doubt, razzle-dazzle 'em, even if it requires appropriations from established hits that have little to do with the essence of your own show.
The new costumes by William Ivey Long often suggest ''The Lion King'' reinvented for Las Vegas, with inhabitants of the Seussian jungle looking alternately like cleavage-flashing showgirls (for the bird characters) or rough-trade go-go boys (the taunting monkeys).
The eye-teasing, deliberately garish scenery (said to have been enhanced by Tony Walton) and lighting effects (Natasha Katz) bring to mind the pinball-machine universe of the Broadway version of ''Tommy.'' And the lineup of performers seems to have borrowed from popular Broadway revues like ''Smokey Joe's Cafe,'' including the inevitable big woman with the big rafters-shaking voice (Sharon Wilkins as a kangaroo).
''Seussical'' is not a revue, though it might work better if it were. The show has a running -- well, make that crawling -- story line, which focuses on parallel universes: that of the jungle and that of the infinitesimal planet of people known as the Whos. The worlds are connected by the elephant Horton (the ever-likable Kevin Chamberlin), whose sanity is doubted by his fellow jungle dwellers when he becomes the protector of the invisible Whos, whom only he can hear.
The evening is overseen by the character who, along with the evil Grinch (who makes a guest appearance here), is the most famous of Seuss's creations: the Cat in the Hat. The Cat is a liberating and dangerous force of anarchy in Seuss's original tale (the first that many children read), and casting David Shiner in the part makes sense.
Mr. Shiner is best known as half of the team that created the blissful mime show ''Fool Moon,'' playing bad clown to Bill Irwin's good clown. Yet here his subversive qualities appear to have been straitjacketed, along with his most potent weapon, his angular body language. Instead, he walks around with a queasy frozen grin, like a sentenced prisoner who vainly hopes to charm his executioner out of killing him. When the Cat comes to wreak liberating havoc in the life of a boy, JoJo (Anthony Blair Hall), he might as well be the Avon lady.
As the show's token child, through whose eyes we are meant to see the world, Mr. Hall gives a terrific, straightforward performance that conveys a matter-of-fact acceptance of the fantastical. Would that what's going on around him were more truly fantastic.
Though the show's theme song is a hymn to make-believe -- the appealing ''Oh, the Thinks You Can Think'' -- the soaring flights of fancy are few. Only one number, in which JoJo imagines a marine world beneath his bathtub, has the desired transporting effect, and even it feels oversold.
The cast also notably features the Betty Boop-voiced Janine LaManna, as the wistful bird who loves Horton, and Michele Pawk, as a more exotic avian specimen. Ms. Pawk, who has a few delicious bits of off-center comic business, is the only performer who brings an inventive physical sense of the animal she is playing to her role. Stuart Zagnit and Alice Playten are stylishly strait-laced as JoJo's conventional parents.
Mr. Chamberlin, late of ''Dirty Blonde,'' sustains a sweet, sober dignity throughout that will no doubt bring him a Tony nomination and he has the unusual virtue here of appearing to believe in what he's saying and singing. Unfortunately, he is overwhelmed by the surrounding flashiness. So, for that matter, are the simple charms of Mr. Flaherty's score, which often has the mild Caribbean spice of his music for ''Once on This Island.''
Just as Horton, by listening attentively with his elephant ears, can make out the voices of the tiny Whos, you may find you can hear a happy little show that might have been beneath all the layers of fat in this production.
One of the repeated lines in ''Seussical'' is ''a person's a person, no matter how small.'' The same might be said of theatrical concepts. The real fable to be found in ''Seussical: The Musical'' is that there is no disgrace in being small; it's trying to look big, when you're innately little, that throws things off-kilter. The Whos may survive the predations of a larger, destructive universe; ''Seussical,'' sadly, does not.
To paraphrase the good doctor: Oh, the mistakes you can make!
The biggest blunder committed by the now-beleaguered creators of "Seussical" was probably the first and most forgivable: surrendering to the seductive but dangerous idea that the fantastical world of Dr. Seuss could be handily lifted from the page and transplanted to the stage. (The show began as a glint in Garth Drabinsky's eye -- perhaps not the happiest omen.) Of course anything's possible, as Dr. Seuss himself would cheerfully remind us. But the delicate, deceptively simple aesthetic of Theodor Geisel poses challenges for adapters that require an inventive and rigorously refined approach to match his own -- something far from the standard Broadway formulas applied, and in many cases reapplied, here.
The show's troubles have been much discussed in the months running up to its delayed Gotham opening. They included the exit of the original costume designer, Catherine Zuber, set designer Eugene Lee and director Frank Galati, although the latter two retain program credit. Dark rumors also swirled that no one was particularly enchanted with David Shiner, who was not the top choice for the role of the Cat in the Hat.
And so "Seussical" arrives at the Richard Rodgers giving off the distinct fragrance of a two-ton, $10.5 million turkey -- a nice Seussian image, really. Is the rap justified? Not entirely. The show is fitfully charming, and it's likely that kids will not be particularly put off by its apparent and frenetically expressed desire to please all constituencies, or the disjointed meandering of its book. But it's mighty disappointing nonetheless. The nonsensical verbal humor, crisp morality and sweet surprise of Seuss are all but smothered under a glitzy and graceless showbiz carapace.
Shiner, in fact, is quite appealing, a magnetically goofy chameleon who pops up in various guises throughout the show and is always welcome. Frankly, more of his elastic physical comedy and inspired miming would not be unwelcome, and his singing voice, while hardly cultivated, is adequate to the task of his peppy songs. Also neatly evoking the Seuss aesthetic, albeit in a lower key, is Kevin Chamberlin, a major asset in the central role of Horton the Elephant. He's the sweet, calm center of the show -- a goofy, shy kid who decided not to grow up -- and his performance is subtly touching even when his material isn't.
Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the composer and lyricist, respectively, also wrote the book, and they have confessed that the task fell to them by default when the musical got mired in the fallout from the Livent collapse. It conflates the two famous books starring the redoubtable pachyderm: "Horton Hears a Who," wherein he valiantly defends a miniature Who civilization from destruction by his disbelieving fellow jungle beasts, and "Horton Hatches the Egg," in which he's duped into performing the title function by a selfish bird more interested in flying to Palm Beach for the winter.
But Horton's dual dilemmas are just the beginning. To flesh out the material to fill a two-act musical, various other elements from the Seuss universe have been woven, not terribly gracefully, into the Horton story. The resulting traffic jam is the show's fatal flaw. Economy is a crucial factor -- perhaps the crucial factor -- in the appeal of the Dr. Seuss books. His verbal whimsy and finely judged moralism are administered in carefully calibrated doses -- small enough so that you can read the books time and again without tiring of them. "Seussical," by contrast, is overstuffed with words, characters, songs, plots and cheerful admonitions.
So Gertrude McFuzz (Janine LaManna), the bird with only one feather in her tail, becomes Horton's love interest; there's a whole heap of Whoville plots, mostly centering on youngster JoJo and his wild imagination; the anti-arms race book "The Butter Battle" is alluded to in a couple of numbers; the Truffula trees are mentioned once; Yertle the Turtle makes a cameo appearance; and even the Grinch gets an entirely unnecessary look-in (possibly mandated by Universal, one of the show's backers and the company behind the similarly overdone Grinch picture -- which hardly needs the PR in any case).
Truth to tell, there are probably more words in Ahrens' book and lyrics for this show than in all the Dr. Seuss books put together. Among them can be found many clever touches: "Green Eggs and Ham" as a boot camp march song sung by the soldiers fighting the butter battle, to name one. But in the end, focus is lost amid all the distractions, and the two simple central tales become one saga that threatens to rival the presidential race in complexity, longevity and fractiousness. (Aptly, it also winds up in a courtroom.)
Songs do most of the storytelling, and so here, too, overabundance is a problem. Flaherty is a gifted composer with an innate flair for ear-pleasing melodies and a deep knowledge of popular music styles. He seems determined to employ all of them in "Seussical." There are soaring Disney-picture ballads ("Solla Sollew" is the sweetest); ragtime romps; a Carmen Miranda vamp for Mayzie the errant bird; vaudevillian jazz numbers for the Cat in the Hat; jaunty choral anthems, up-tempo and uplifting; even, inevitably, a gospel romp for the courtroom finale. Individually, many of the songs are catchy and appealing, but they eventually blur together in a woozy and increasingly formulaic haze. (I suspect they'll make a better impression on CD, when Ahrens' often apt and funny lyrics can be deciphered and the busy trappings of the production are forgotten.)
Compounding the musical's conceptual troubles are major gaffes of execution. Visually, the show makes only minimal attempts to re-create the exaggerated contours of the Seuss universe and the idiosyncratic look of its fauna. The bright blue oval proscenia are pretty, and a few set pieces pleasingly ape the swooning architecture we all recognize. But almost no attempt has been made to suggest that the characters cavorting before us are fantastical creatures.
On the contrary: William Ivey Long's slinky bodysuits and sexy getups leave little doubt as to the species of their wearers. Long is a talented designer, but he specializes in traditional Broadway sex and glamour, and was a singularly -- even spectacularly -- ill-advised choice for this show. My knowledge of the Seussian oeuvre is not infallible, but I do not recall the presence anywhere of leather-clad chorus boys. (Further enlightenment on this point is welcome.) Inventiveness -- and, perhaps more vitally, a Seussian simplicity -- are sorely lacking from Long's incoherent work here.
The designer's nadir coincides with choreographer Kathleen Marshall's -- and possibly the musical's -- in an embarrassing jazz ballet for garishly attired fish that seems designed to give solace to those in the audience who are already missing "Cats." Elsewhere, Marshall's own contributions are mediocre Broadway gyrating and hoofing; here, too, a chance to translate into three dimensions the unique energies of the Seuss books has been lost -- a modern dance choreographer such as David Parsons might have worked wonders.
Indeed, the choices that went into the production were all sensible, safe ones -- reactive rather than proactive, concerned with retaining the widest possible Broadway audience (both adults and kids) rather than capturing the special atmosphere of the source material. The results, not surprisingly, are lacking in the adventurousness and inspiration that breathes from every page of the Dr. Seuss books.
By most accounts those ingredients are likewise missing from Universal's "Grinch" picture, and it grossed more than $150 million in its first two weeks of release. The challenge facing the producers of "Seussical" -- and they include the savvy marketing specialists Barry and Fran Weissler -- will be selling goods of the same questionable quality at a much higher price. After all, there are no bargain matinees on Broadway.