As an introduction to musicals, Seussical does a good job of introducing some of the character-types and tropes of adult musicals to young audiences. There are the villains and vamps, the love songs, the big chorus numbers and the moving solos. Unfortunately Stephen Flaherty's score doesn't introduce much originality though. Like the lyrics – based on Dr. Seuss' text – it is fairly banal, if relentlessly high tempo.
Fair enough, it's a kids' show, and there are no doubt plenty of children who have grown up being read Dr. Seuss who will get a lot out of watching the book's characters come alive in bright colours on a big stage. Without prior emotional attachment though, the characters have little to recommend them, either to children or an adult audience. The Cat in the Hat is our host for the evening, but his mix of the enigmatic and life-affirming is confusing. One moment he is a shadowy narrator, slipping in and out of the action, and in another he is telling us to dream up whatever we feel like because it's good to use our imaginations.
It's this contradiction that is at the heart of Seussical and, perhaps, of the books upon which the show is based. While we are being told to use our imaginations (or to "have thinks"), we are being given little to stimulate them, except a somewhat shapeless, stream-of-consciousness-style string of disconnected images and neologisms – wacky but foundationless.
However, as the show progresses, some narrative does begin to emerge. I found myself increasingly absorbed in the story of Horton the Elephant (Ste Clough) and Gertrude McFuzz (Kirsty Marie Ayers), the little bird, with just one tail feather, who is desperate to impress him. A highlight of the night, Ayers is a rather fine soprano, whose characterful interpretation of what could be another colourless part is at its most rewarding when opposite Jessica Parker's feisty Maizie La Bird – the voluptuously plumaged flirt who persuades Horton to sit on her egg while she parties in Palm Beach. But you'd be forgiven for thinking that the author doesn't like women much: both female characters trick Horton – spinning lies and ensnaring him.
A sense of narrative, strong images and character will spark an interest and get the imagination working, but Seussical – though finely produced, choreographed and designed – neglects these basic tenets of storytelling and plays by its own rules. There's lots of razzmatazz and dazzle here, but imaginatively it's slim pickings.
That's not to say the dramatisation of the books is at fault – far from it. Lynn Ahrens (lyrics and book) and Stephen Flaherty (music and book) do an excellent job of adapting the original stories (mainly Horton Hears a Who!, The Lorax and The Cat in the Hat), for the contemporary stage. They combine several different narratives to build one new yet familiar story, striking just the right kind of balance between faithfulness to the originals and their own interpretation for appealing to a loyal fan base.