Anyone who’s had the exhausted pleasure of living with small children knows this one: You curl up with them at the end of the day, intone the lines of a favorite book — and instantly read yourself to sleep. Soon a tiny fist is prodding you in the ribs and a voice is demanding you get on with it, so you will the illustrations into focus and rejoin your kid, who, happily staving off bedtime, is completely attuned to the nuances of the story.
This, as it happens, is an apt description of watching Seussical with a 5-year-old. The original musical, based on what feels like a solid two thirds of Theodor S. Geisel’s entire literary output, has finally opened on Broadway after months of revamps, rumors, and delays. Against all expectations, it is not a fiasco. In truth, the evening gets far closer to the still-beating heart of Dr. Seuss and his work than that bilious, grinchy, hypocritical ode to Christmas marketing tie-ins now playing at a multiplex near you.
But here’s the thing: In a Seuss book, the profusion of funny words and oddball critters and gracefully zigzagging ziggurats is part of the fun. On a stage, such largesse can turn stultifying. You can pinpoint the moment when Seussical begins to tilt over like a top-heavy wedding cake. It’s three fourths of the way into the first act, when, after having established three concurrent story lines — Horton (Dirty Blonde‘s Kevin Chamberlin, beguilingly sweet) hearing a Who, Gertrude McFuzz (showstopper Janine LaManna) growing a tail, and young Who JoJo (Anthony Blair Hall) getting drafted into the Butter Battle — the producers introduce a fourth major narrative by plopping Horton atop that fabled egg of Mayzie’s. This in addition to quick, one-scene takes on McElligot’s Pool and The Cat in the Hat.
By Yertle the Turtle’s second-act cameo, your brain may have glazed over, and certainly the night I saw Seussical, testy grown-ups were checking their watches with frequency. My daughter, on the other hand, was enraptured from beginning to end. She loved the erstwhile silent clown David Shiner’s emcee role as the Cat in the Hat, even as I felt I was watching an uncanny Martin Short impression. She bounced along to all the songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty — the tuneful ones, the lumpy ones, the ones that sound like outtakes from the duo’s Ragtime. She marveled at the sunny Cray-Pas palette of the revised sets and costumes. And when it was over, she pronounced the evening ”better than fun.”
Nice work, kid: That sums up Seussical‘s aggressive approach. It’s better, it’s bigger, it’s more. To children who have marinated in Ted Geisel’s universe over the course of a thousand bedtimes, this show pays proper, multilayered homage. For the grown-ups — well, there are worse things than having someone read you to sleep. B-