Wednesday, April 20, 2011

"Seussical," "Cliffhanger" reviewed

Photo by Heather L. Smith / The Aurora Sentinel

“Seussical: The Musical”
Until May 1
The Aurora Fox Studio Theatre, 9900 E. Colfax Ave.
Tickets start at $25
For more information, call 303-957-8186 or log on to

In launching its third season, the Gravity Defied Theatre company has taken a break from the risque and the raunchy.
Since 2009, the young troupe has carved a niche for itself with regional premieres of works like Andrew Lippa’s “The Wild Party” and Hunter Bell’s “[title of show],” musicals that revel in bawdy themes and adult language. Gravity Defied founder Keith Rabin is the first to admit that the crew’s current production of “Seussical: The Musical” represents an artistic shift for a company that’s known for embracing adult material.
“This show is different from our regular programming, which usually brings you productions that, while incredible, are not family friendly,” Rabin writes in the program for “Seussical.”
The Broadway musical — based the best known stories by celebrated children’s author Dr. Seuss — is about as family friendly as you can get. Lynn Ahrens’ and Stephen Flaherty’s piece melds several Seuss stories into a larger narrative with a bright, catchy score as a backdrop. Characters like the Cat in the Hat, Horton the Elephant, Yertle the Turtle, the Grinch and an entire town of Whos all find a place in the show’s 23-person cast.
Happily, the Gravity Defied crew doesn’t get tripped up by a shift to a children’s musical, and they handle the ambitious scope of the piece with grace and expertise.

Directors Pat Payne and Stephanie Prugh guide a large cast of “Seussical” creatures in capturing Seuss’ knack for exotic settings, sing-songy verse and exaggerated characters. Most impressively, perhaps, is the fact that it all takes place in the small confines of the Aurora Fox studio theater.
It’s an impressive feat, especially considering the fantastical range and breadth of Seuss’ stories. A child struggles to embrace the freedom of an unfettered imagination as an elephant runs into trouble because of his big heart; an entire community of microscopic citizens faces extinction as a roving gang of mischievous monkeys cause trouble for everyone.
It’s a dizzying set of conflicts and characters, a kaleidoscope pulled straight from the pages of several Seuss stories. Still, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty find a kind of unity in their words and music, and the Gravity Defied company manage to find the heart of the epic tale.
The story is loosely centered around JoJo (Kate Lubotsky), a child encouraged to dream and to act out by the Cat in the Hat (Chris Russel), one of Dr. Seuss’ best-known characters who becomes the musical’s unofficial emcee. Jojo and Cat run into the big-hearted elephant Horton (Rob Riney), the only one privy to the plight of the tiny community of Whos living on the head of a clover.
As the Who Mayor (Owen Niland) and his wife (Debbie Minter) urge Horton to save their entire community from extinction, the bird Gertrude McFuzz (Madison Kitchen) is also trying to win the pachyderm’s attention. With her small tail, Gertrude feels inadequate and, at the urging of her extravagantly feathered friend Mayzie LaBird (Jennifer Hanna), she decides to augment her tailfeathers to earn the elephant’s love.
The cast is rounded out by a rude group of monkeys known as the Wickersham Brothers (Keith Rabin Jr., Paul Jaquith and Macklin MacKenzie), a sassy singing marsupial called the Sour Kangaroo (Anna High) and cameos by the Grinch (MacKenzie) and Yertle the Turtle (Quincy Jones).
The story can feel epic and rambling at times, but the cast manages to retain the feel of any good Seuss book. Speaking in the author’s trademark brand of rhymed verse, the vast cast tackles everything from the importance of imagination to the value of self-confidence. A pithy score helps keep the show grounded, ranging from calypso moods to straight R&B textures. Despite occasional sound issues, the music is expansive and rich, especially considering the entire orchestra consists of three musicians.
With dynamic choreography by Stephanie Prugh, a colorful set painted by Chris Russell and evocative costumes by Laura High, the show manages to weave its way through an impressive range of storylines. Even at its most chaotic moments, the show keeps up its charm, paying homage to America’s own Aesop with its talking animals and its snippets from “Green Eggs and Ham.”
Gravity Defied has shown a new side of itself with “Seussical,” just as it did in its production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” in 2010. There’s more to Gravity Defied than its knack for pushing the envelope, as this musical shows with its sweetness, silliness and charming sincerity.

Three stars out of four


Until May 7
Firehouse Theater Company at the John Hand Theater
7653 E. First Place, Denver
Tickets start at $17
For more information, call 303-562-3232

The ethical dilemmas never seem to stop for Henry Lowenthal, the main character in James Yaffe’s aptly titled drama “Cliffhanger.”
What starts as a textbook crime of revenge in Yaffe’s murder mystery blooms into a philosophical journey for Lowenthal, an unlikely sort of lead for a thriller. He’s no hardened criminal or smooth-talking gangster — he’s a longtime philosophy professor from a small liberal arts college somewhere in the western U.S., a man who follows up an unintentional murder with ethical questions pulled from the work Socrates and Plato.
This mix of the academic and the pulp is a key component of “Cliffhanger,” a thriller that mixes scenes of cold-blooded murder with breezy arguments about the Socratic method. The Firehouse Theater Company’s production of “Cliffhanger” captures Yaffe’s dual dynamic, framing a grisly crime in a university setting.
This odd dramatic formula lends for a mixed effect. At its best moments, the piece is a surreal take on the cliched thriller, a clever work that juggles abstract ethical questions with bloody, immediate crimes. At its worst moments, however, the action feels dry and without any real inertia. Yaffe’s constant reliance on tying the action to ethical quandaries and ancient philosophers can make the real meat of the piece — the cliffhanger — feel stilted and ineffective.
Lowenthal, played with a perfect amount of pragmatism by Wade Livingston, has spent decades securing his spot in the philosophy department of an unnamed liberal arts college. Lowenthal and his wife Polly (Linda Orr) hope he’ll be named for an endowed chair position in the philosophy department, a goal quickly derailed by his rival and onetime student Edith Wilshire (Beth Davis). Because of grudges built up as an undergraduate student, Edith is out to ruin her former professor’s prospects and force him to retire.
It’s a threat that brings out the worst in Lowenthal, who makes use of a marble bust of Socrates to stop Edith from following through on her vindictive plans.
Following a sudden outburst of violence, Polly plays the role of Lady Macbeth, urging her husband to cover up the crime and continue with his plans for the endowed chair. Orr is properly unsettling in her role as Lowenthal’s partner in crime, drawing on Socrates and the idea of the “greater good” to stop her husband from turning himself in. Her efforts only get more complicated when an unlikely witness pops up in the form of Melvin McMullen (Sam Gilstrap), a student in Lowenthal’s introduction to ethics class who wants to use blackmail to change his failing grade in the course.
Director Brian Brooks maintains a taut feel throughout the piece, despite Yaffe’s tangents about absolute ethics and relativists that can feel a bit lengthy. The playwright’s concept has some engaging elements, especially for anyone who’s had to sit through an intro philosophy course in college. Still, the intellectual arguments can get in the way of the suspense, which is the most important part of any cliffhanger.
A frantic performance by Gilstrap as a spoiled college student keeps the action alive, as does the chemistry between Orr and Livingston. As a former street tough who worked his way up to a post as a philosophy professor, Livingston offers the right amount of scrappy defiance; as a lifelong academic from a privileged background, Orr plays her role with a due amount of entitlement.
Still, it’s tough to balance questions of absolute ethics and the greater good with discussions about throwing someone off of a 300-foot cliff. The gap between brainy humor and a suspenseful pulp piece is pretty wide; making the jump between the two isn’t always smooth.

Two and a half stars out of four.

1 comment:

  1. Gravity Defied Theatre's "Seussical the Musical" is a solid "4 star" show. It works on every level. From lead actors Katie Lubotsky (JoJo), Chris Russell (The Cat in the Hat), Rob Riney (Horton the Elephant) and Madison Kitchen (Gertrude McFuzz)(its hard to believe she is only in 8th grade!!)to the "smallest of small" in the ensemble, the cast is loaded with talent, and is a pleasure to watch. Stephanie Prugh's choreography is fast and fun. And Pat Payne's vision - including his "inside theater jokes" (Eponine Who!) - brings the familiar world of Dr. Seuss alive! Go see this show . . . you'll leave with a song on your lips and a smile in your heart!