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    A whimsical Cat in the Hat in school play

    The young man playing the Cat in the Hat was tall and spindly, and prowled the stage like, well, a cat. He was here, he was there – filling in the blanks in the story, egging on the other character-animals, step-toeing across the stage, walking the aisles among us.

    I was invited recently to the annual musical presented by a teacher-friend at a local high school. This year, the students were performing “Seussical,” a musical based on Dr. Seuss books that was first done on Broadway more than a decade ago. It is apparently still popular with high schools and regional theaters.

    Dr. Seuss' popular "The Cat in the Hat."

    Most of us are familiar with the Seuss books, several of which I’ve come across pretty often at auction. It seems that practically every child has had a copy of one of them, and proudly scribbled his or her name in it. I’ve picked up “The Cat in the Hat,” “Horton Hears a Who,” “Horton Lays an Egg,” “Scrambled Eggs Super,” and “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” (with a boy’s scribbled name “Steve” in black marker ).

    “Seussical” draws characters from about two dozen of the books, but the focus is on Horton the Elephant, who hears the voices of people from Whoville who live on a speck of dust. He spends the length of the show trying to protect them, but with some mishaps.

    The musical, written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, made its Broadway debut in 2000. It was nominated for at least five Tony Awards but didn’t win any. It had 198 performances before exiting Broadway in 2001. A one-act version has been created for younger children. 

    Dr. Seuss wrote of Horton and Whoville in 1954 with a theme of acceptance of others.

    Seuss, who had no children of his own, wrote like someone who did (“You make ‘em, I’ll amuse ‘em,” his biography quoted him as saying). His official website is a children’s playground with music, animation and characters from the books. (I learned from it that I had been saying his name wrong; it’s pronounced “Zoice” not “Soose.” His full name is Theodor Seuss Geisel.)

    “Horton Hears A Who” – his fourth book, written in 1954 – was his response to prejudice exerted against the less-powerful, according to his biography. It grew out of a 1953 trip he made to Japan and was dedicated to a professor at Kyoto University. The United States had dropped two atomic bombs on the country in 1945, ending World War II. The refrain “a person’s a person, no matter how small” – repeated in the book and the play – was his pronouncement that we all matter regardless of who we are.

    A student plays the Cat in the Hat in school play.

    As I sat there watching the performance – which had a few technical mishaps of its own – I realized that I had not taken the time to read any of the Seuss books I’d come across. I knew the names Horton, the Cat in the Hat and Grinch, but had never read their stories, which for me was unusual because I love children’s books. This play would at least offer me a chance to observe the brilliance of Seuss.

    The young man playing the Cat with his tall red-and-white ringed hat came on the stage in white face and black whiskers, and for a minute, it was a bit unnerving. Faces painted black or white remind me of black-face minstrel shows from a century ago. But this one was all-fun, and the young man was so natural in the part that he became the Cat. I forgot about the white-face makeup.

    The beloved Horton was sympathetic and tentative as he took on this large responsibility, Mayzie the bird (from “Horton Hatches the Egg”) was flirty, Gertrude the one-tail-feather bird (from “Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories”) was enchanting, and Jojo (from “Horton Hears a Who”) was a girl who played a boy’s role convincingly. But the Cat was the character who seemed to have stolen the show with his likeable antics and his top hat. I kept worrying that the hat would fall off his head.

    The adults in the audience loved him as much as the children. After the show, he was mobbed for autographs like a movie star. Some parents even handed him their children for photos.

    The performance and response demonstrated Seuss’ philosophy of storytelling:

    “I don’t write for children,” he said in an interview. “I write for people. … I treat the child as an equal.”

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    1 Comment

    1. Thank you. I am happy people had fun viewing this musical because we certainly had fun putting on this show.

      Theresa Bramwell, director Suessical NEHS

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