Friday, November 18, 2011

Song Books - Seussical and The Yellow Brick Road - Musical Reviews

Seussical - Young People's Theatre - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5 stars)
Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Book by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Directed by Allen MacInnis
Runs until Dec. 30 2011

The Yellow Brick Road - Theatreworks USA at The Lucille Lortel Theatre - *** (out of 5 stars)
Music and Lyrics by Tommy Newman and Jaime Lozano, Book by Tommy Newman, Jaime Lozano and Mando Alvarando, Directed by Devanand Janki
Closed Off-Broadway on Aug. 19th 2011, Currently on a National Tour.

The newly renamed Young People's Theatre in Toronto has revived Seussical, in a brand new production based on the revised and shortened intermissionless version of the Broadway musical based on the works of Dr. Seuss. The Broadway production may have been considered a flop, and the book (of the musical) had always been problematic, but the music of Ahrens and Flaherty (who created the majestic and stunning Ragtime) is wonderful, fun and quite beautiful. YPT's delightful new production (different to their 2006 version) beautifully captures the best of the musical and manages to smooth over the wrinkles in the already streamlined book.

I'm not sure if YPT's current production is based on the new streamlined one-act version of Seussical, which first premiered at the Lucille Lortel Theatre by Theatreworks USA. I remembered enjoying that Off-Broadway production, with the great Theatreworks USA bringing free shows to NYC audiences every summer. Their latest new creation The Yellow Brick Road puts a latin spin on the classic tale of Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz (and is currently on a National Tour).

Seussical the musical amalgamates different elements from Dr. Seuss books, using the Cat in the Hat (a wonderful Damien Atkins) who sort of defaults as a narrator. The Cat in the Hat tells the main tale of Horton the Elephant (a heartbreaking George Masswohl returning again in the same role) who hears a Who and tries to protect the little people of Whoville, lead by Jojo, the littlest Who (a dear Jennifer Villaverde). The Cat guides Jojo through the tale (in a sort of meta way) while pushing Jojo to think beyond the norm, in imaginative ways.

Meanwhile, a side story has Gertrude (an empathetic Jane Johanson) the bird with a small tail, trying to capture the heart of Horton, while selfish Mazzie (a delightfully hilarious Sharron Matthews) goes off on vacation, leaving her egg in Horton's care.

The cast, which also includes an angry kangaroo (with the soulful belty voice of Nichola Lawrence), is first rate, and bring the right amount of zany energy to the world of Seuss. Director Allen MacInnis (who directed the wonderful The Frog and Toad last year) keeps the flow mostly in check, and keeps all the different elements flowing together nicely, especially the narrator Cat in the Hat, who tends to pop in and out, and the story of the birds, which always seems to come out of nowhere and seemed annoying in the Off-Broadway incarnation that I saw.

George Masswohl is heartbreaking as Horton, and as dressed in ingenious costumes by Judith Bowden, his Horton the Elephant is endearing while giving a surprisingly emotionally deep performance. The show may be geared towards kids, but Masswohl gives the show the conviction required by a Ahrens and Flaherty show.

Seussical may be playing at the Young People's Theatre but the spirited energy of Dr. Seuss and a first rate production makes this musical one for all ages. So bring the kids, but if you don't have any, don't let that stop you.

The Yellow Brick Road is a new musical spin on The Wizard of Oz taken towards In the Heights. It places our new heroine Dora in New York City, just as she tries to avoid her quinceañera. Dora is soon whisked away to a strange land where she must follow the yellow brick road, and where she learns that learning the rhythms of her culture can help her find her way back home.

The story is a fun excuse to throw in a lot of Salsa and Meringue choreography into fun and rhythmic songs as Dora (Virginia Cavaliere) travels through a journey where she meets the Scarecrow (Ryan Duncan), Mountain Lion (Cedric Leiba, Jr.) and Iron Chef (Frank Viveiros) as they set off to meet the Wizard (Lexi Rhoades). This new version of a classic tale nicely spins things around into a modern day tale, giving it a fresh urban vibe while inserting some nice moral tales about respecting ones own culture and family.

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