Labor Day came a little late this year, so the new 2009-10 performing arts season pounced on its heels with a mighty roar. Whether you're up for mindless frivolity or a rewarding probe into the artistic temperament, there's a show out there for you.
Silly stuff first. Theatre Charlotte launched its 82nd season with Seussical, revealing a profound truth that Broadway producers, CP Summer Theatre and Children's Theatre have all slept on. This lightweight ensemble piece plays better in a smaller venue. CP's 2007 edition and the touring version that came to Ovens in 2003, after its ignominious Broadway megaflop, were both sweet clouds of goo. Glorifying the oeuvre of an author who took up the challenge of writing a book using no more than 50 different words, 27 songs and 35 actors are a bit overinflated.
The smaller Queens Road stage tends to deflate the cotton-candy grotesquerie enough for us to pay as much attention to the Cat in the Hat as the doggerel. Seussical is little more than the story of Horton Hears a Who! as told to a little boy by that ringmaster Cat. We still navigate detours to the Jungle of Nool, cameos by the Grinch and Yertle the Turtle, and a digression into Horton Hatches the Egg, but director Ron Law manages to keep the peripatetic story centered on character.
A topnotch cast handles the task. There's a surreal, over-energized streak to Andy Faulkenberry's take on the Cat in the Hat, and he's already a formidable triple threat. An equally auspicious Theatre Charlotte debut comes from the perilously young Eli Newman as the boy lured into Seuss's world by the Cat -- doubling as boy wonder JoJo, the lone independent thinker on Planet Who.
As Horton the Elephant, pudgy Stuart Spencer, regally decked out in a janitor's jumpsuit, cradles the dust-speck planet with all the weighty woe of Hamlet contemplating Yorick's skull. Priceless.
Mock gravity works. So does a certain amount of overblown glitz. With a quartet of harmonious Bird Girls and a trio of jivey Wickersham Brothers, we're never short of excess. But the highest concentrate of feathery frou-frou comes from Lisa Smith as the super-glam Mayzie LaBird, distantly followed by Chase Law as the scraggly Gertrude McFuzz. Kecia Capers makes a mighty gospel-singing matron of the nay-saying Sour Kangaroo, wielding the cutest little puppet roo-child as she fulminates.
Jamey Varnadore's costume designs twinkle with humor, complemented by Chris Timmons' devoutly two-dimensional scenic design. Music director Ellen Robison leads a tight five-piece band, another trim that helps transform the bloated Lynn Ahrens Seussical score into leaner, purer fun. Theatre Charlotte was also transformed on opening night: Anklebiter population was way up, fully engaged with the silliness.