“Seussical” Miracle at John Cooper School

Seussical,” as one might guess from the name itself, is of course a musical. In the case of this month’s premiere production debuting the extraordinary new John Cooper School Performing Arts Center , the show might be aptly described as a miracle as well. It was remarkable on so many levels, I can only hope to give my readers a sense of the excellence that was on display. Perhaps the glossy and elegant commemorative “Playbill” program book itself was a clue to the audience that something first-class was about to be revealed. And so it was on a beautiful autumn Texas Sunday afternoon when just a lovely walk on the huge and rambling campus of the school would have been worth the price of admission to the matinee. But there would be so much more.

The soaring new theater auditorium (seating 515 at this sold out performance) could have been in the downtown Houston Theatre District and would fit in nicely. Amenities are top-of-the-line, from the recessed orchestra pit to the near perfect audio system, and extensive theatrical lighting equipment that extends not only to the stage but to surrounding the audience on every side and the ceiling above. Nothing has been spared to create the finest possible facility for the performing arts programs at this exclusive school. Judging from the results on stage, the fine arts staff, from director, Joseph Demonico on down, must be first-rate as well. “By their fruits ye shall know them.”

The show, based on the works of Dr. Seuss, has the witty lyrics of Lynn Ahrens and the charming music of Stephen Flaherty which is given top-notch treatment by music director, Donna Arnold, band director, Bob Scannell, rehearsal pianist, Steve Sandifer, and conductor, Rae Moses, leading his fine ten-piece orchestra. The pleasant opening set (designer, Jon Shelledy, Scenic Artist, Rod Flower) might at first remind one of the nursery scenes in Peter Pan. It was not long before the stage was filled with much of the huge cast and the stunning and polished 20-voice ensemble for the rousing opener, “Oh The Thinks You Can Think.” The often hilarious costumes were eye-popping in their gorgeous colors. We meet the imaginative boy, Jo-Jo, sweetly and convincingly played by Rebecca Schwartz (gender not withstanding), and Miss Schwartz does lovely solo work with the vocal of “Alone in the Universe.” Jo-Jo is described as “…a smart child with a wild imagination,” and it struck me there must be many a John Cooper student that could identify with that. But Jo-Jo’s wild imagination gets him into trouble from time to time, and his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Mayor (hilariously played by Mark Farley and Madison Cagle), struggle to deal with Jo-Jo‘s flights of fancy while singing the charming “How to Raise a Child.”

Horton the elephant is a kind and gentle giant, and Ranjeet Paul brings substantial vocal power and commanding stage presence to this role full of subtleties. And Horton has a rare gift: He can hear the tiny invisible “Whos” in their world so small that no one else believes it really exists. In fact, his fellow Seuss characters mock him in the block-buster number, “Biggest Blame Fool.” The lighting (Technical Director, Lauren Gallup, Audio/visual coordination, Troy Dingle) is elaborate and impressive throughout the show, whether for the multi-colored starry sky during Horton and Jo-Jo’s sweet duet of “Alone in the Universe,” or in the brilliant city skyline and pastel lighting glory of the song “Here On Who.” While the fine band may have occasionally been a touch too loud in that number, the choreography (Elizabeth Demonico) was smashing. Even the nutty hairdos on many characters added to the fun.

Enough cannot be said about the splendid performance of Whitney Brandt in the role of the Cat in the Hat. Her voice is wonderful in delightful numbers like “How Lucky You Are,” and her grace and ease of fluid movement on the stage were a clear signal that this young lady is theatre-bound. When she joins Jo-Jo, the Fish, and the Mermaids for “It’s Possible,” the astounding underwater effects even had a floating fishing boat and a deep-sea diver swimming about, all suspended by wires much like Mary Martin in the classic stage musical of “Peter Pan.” The audience was further drawn into the underwater world by the aforementioned lighting system embracing the auditorium. As the show progresses, even the Cat has numerous exciting mid-air flights via the magic of the technical professionals at ZFX Flying Effects.

The fun escalates as we meet the Seuss birds, shy Gertrude who longs for a glamorous tail (Emily Jacobson), flamboyant Mayzie (Nisha Balsara) who enlists Horton’s help because she has no time to hatch her own egg, and the really wonderful vocalists of the “Bird Girl” back-up singers (Caitlin Lashier, Angie Lopez-Videla, Graham Browning, and Kelly Zupan). In their amusing and eye-catching satin costumes, the birds steal the show with great singing and dancing in several numbers. The cast has more great support from Spencer Summers as Schmitz, the military drill sergeant, Cory Guinn as The Grinch, Cody Guinn as Yertl the Turtle, Holden Tikkanen as Vlad Vladikoff, Caitlin O’Neill and Margie McGregor as the sassy Kangaroos, and Jim Brock, Alex Novak and Michael Taylor as the zoot-suited Wickershams.

In a delightful Act Two, talented Miss Brandt presides as ringmaster over the fun filled “Circus McGurkus” with its surprising aerial acrobatics. Horton leads fellow cast members in a whimsical “Solla Sollew” that is musical balm for the soul. There is the ghostly, mysterious, and well-choreographed dance of the Hunches, the fun of Horton’s courtroom trial for believing in the invisible Whos, and the full cast finale of “Oh the Things You Can Think” played against the most beautiful sunset silhouette of an angular tree since the opening scenes of “Gone With the Wind.” My final advice to the fortunate students at the John Cooper School requires stealing a song title from the show: Tell yourself “How Lucky You Are!”

For further information on The John Cooper School, visit the website at www.JohnCooper.org.

About The People's Critic

David Dow Bentley III, writes columns about the performing arts which are featured in newspapers from the East Coast to the Gulf Coast. A member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA), The International Theatre Critics Association, and America's oldest theatrical club, The Lambs, he also had long service as the editor of The Lambs' Script magazine. Mr. Bentley may be contacted via e-mail at ThePeoplesCritic3@gmail.com.
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