To transmogrify Seuss,
What a difficult task!
Just how do they do it?
And well might you ask!
This master of mayhem
Who leaps from the page,
How could he be possibly
Put on the stage?
In drawings and poetry,
So how do you add
Actors, space, light and sounds?
But gather ’round children,
and soon you will see,
This charming production
succeeds to a T!
All right, I’ll stop now, for I’m committing what I consider a cardinal sin – trying to imitate the inimitable Dr. Seuss. His gloriously bouncy anapestic tetrameter, perfect scansion and rhyme schemes, his rollicking rhythms and his incomparably crazy drawings have delighted generations of children and their parents. He was, after all, the genius who rescued us from “See Spot Run!”
But this is a problem faced by anyone who attempts to adapt Dr. Seuss’s zany imagination to any other medium. How do you turn a 64-page book of pictures and poetry that is indelibly imprinted in childhood memories into a play without distorting it beyond recognition? The animated specials on TV were perhaps most effective, because they had the author/artist’s own input, and simply brought the drawings and text to life. The “live action” movies that have followed have been much more problematic.
Adventure Theatre’s production of The Cat in the Hat (directed by Adam Immerwahr) preserves what must be preserved: the drawing style and the text. Matthew Buttrey’s scenic design captures the line work in the original drawings, mimicked in the little squiggles of grass, the swoopy lines of doors and curtains, a table that wiggles and droops, and even some delightfully wonky wall sconces. (The footlights made from copies of the Cat’s hat are a nice touch – lighting design by Alberto Segarra.)
In an interesting choice, the characters themselves, Sally, her Brother, the Fish, Things One and Two – all except the Cat himself – are muppet-style puppets, created by Props and Puppets Designer Andrea “Dre” Moore in suitably Seussian style. They are operated onstage by actors in scenery-matching sky blue from their baseball caps to their sneakers (Costumes by Danielle Preston), who put the puppets through their paces while providing their facial expressions, as well as manipulating the many props. Keep your eyes open – there are two sets of Sally and her brother, and three sets of Things One and Two, all serving different purposes.
Ms. Moore had her work cut out for her, making not only all those puppets but the books, boat, cake, teapot, cup, kites, and all the other paraphernalia the Cat uses to create his uber-mess, and the goofy machine he uses to clean it all up. She even devised some shadow puppets, including a lovely translucent Fish that looks like she swam right off the page. And the iconic moment when “Our Mother” comes home is exactly as you remember it from the book – simply her hand and her elegant shoe sweeping in from behind the door, ushering in a sense of dainty doom.
Dr. Seuss’s verse is presented beautifully in the narration of NPR’s “All Things Considered” presenter Ari Shapiro, who alternates with the actors playing the various characters, delivering their own lines. Particularly good is Caroline Wolfson as the Fish, who delivers the poor creature’s warnings like a piscatory Cassandra, while bouncing all over the stage in a bowl or teapot.
There are a few cute seemingly ad-libbed additions that sound a lot like what an older sibling might say when reading the book to a younger, adding a touch of novelty and extra humor.
And novelty is where the Adventure Theatre production brings its own life to the story. Simply narrating the book would not take anywhere near 45 minutes, and this version expands from a bedtime story to a theatrical event. It does that very well, first by stretching out the boredom the children are first experiencing to almost unbearable lengths – one nice interpolation is a dream the fish has when she dozes off and goes swimming off into a bubbly sea full of other denizens of the deep. Then, when the title character arrives, the action gets frenetic, bringing to vivid life the chaos and destruction that the Cat’s crazy games – with the help of Things One and Two – are bound to create. There are ball games, Frisbee, jump rope, music and dancing, a suitable amount of audience participation, many moments presented in mock slow-mo, and even an amusing, long, drawn-out scene of bouncing when everything comes crashing down.
And, of course, there is The Cat. Louis E. Davis invests him with amazing amounts of cheerful sass, making him the coolest cat around. His energy must drive the show, and he is up to the task. One of the most delightful moments is his tragic disappointment when he (at last!) realizes that the children don’t find his maelstrom fun after all, and he drags himself out of the house as if into exile (and then, of course, pops right back in).
All the best children’s entertainment has elements put in just to amuse the adults. In this production, it’s the music. This is most notable when the Cat arrives, to the tune of “The Pink Panther” (of course). But then one thinks back on the really excellent jazz pre-curtain music, and all of the very appropriate underscoring, whether it’s for the rainstorm or the chase scenes or bits where characters are sneaking around like spies.
As it turns out, not just the Pink Panther, but all of the music in the production is by Henri Mancini (well, except for the Jeopardy Theme) a concept that was the brainchild of Director Adam Immerwahr and Sound Designer Evan Cook. (One can only imagine how arduous it must have been to comb through all of Henri Mancini’s scores to find the perfect music, but these are dedicated professionals who will do anything for their craft.) It is definitely worth the effort, bringing a snazzy elegance to the atmosphere in the midst of all the silliness.
All in all, the talented cast and creative crew of Adventure Theatre’s The Cat in the Hat takes what’s best from Dr. Seuss’s book and adds a lot of child-pleasing action.
Adventure Theatre is located in the fascinating historic Glen Echo Park, which until 1968 was the area’s premiere Amusement Park, and is now a culture and arts center. It is worth leaving time before and after your show to look around, have a bite in the café, and take a ride on the gorgeous antique carousel. It is a fun day out for the whole family. The Cat in the Hat would approve.
Running Time: Approximately 45 minutes with no intermission.