Monday, February 15, 2016

Applause! Applause! Review of Seussical: The Musical at The Gallery Players by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg

This review of Seussical: The Musical at The Gallery Players was written by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

Seussical: The Musical 
Director/Co-Choreographer: Barrie Gelles
Music Director: Trevor M. Pierce
Choreographer: Emily Clark
Costume Design: Joey Haws
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens 
Book by Lynn Ahrens & Stephen Flaherty
Co-Conceived by Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty & Eric Idle
The Gallery Players 
199 14th Street
Park Slope, New York 11215
Reviewed 2/7/16

When I was a young person, my speech therapist introduced me to The Cat In The Hat by Dr. Seuss. Although I never owned a work by him, I have read every book of the sixty plus books he wrote as well as a biography. As I entered old age, I read one of his last works, Oh, The Places You'll Go!. Of all these books, the most memorable to me are Green Eggs & Ham, Horton Hatches An Egg, Horton Hears A Who!, How The Grinch Stole Christmas! in addition to And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street.

Dr. Seuss's real name is Theodor Seuss Geisel. After being caught drinking gin (during Prohibition) with nine friends in his dorm room at Dartmouth College, he was banned from participating in extracurricular activities, and was forced to resign his editorship of Jack-O-Lantern, the college's humor magazine. He continued to secretly contribute work to the Jack-O-Lantern without the administration's knowledge, using various aliases including L. Pasteur, D.G. Rossetti '25, T. Seuss, and Seuss (his mother's maiden name). He attended the University of Oxford but left in 1927 to begin his career as an illustrator and cartoonist for Vanity Fair and Life. As a magazine cartoonist, he began signing his work under the mock-scholarly title of "Dr. Theophrastus Seuss" in 1927, which he shortened to "Dr. Seuss" in 1928. In 1955, Dartmouth gave him his first honorary doctorate. He would eventually receive several more honorary degrees, including one from Princeton. By pursuing his love of drawing, Ted Geisel became one of the few people to earn a Ph.D. by dropping out of graduate school. 

He worked as an illustrator for several advertising campaigns, most notably for Flit (a common bug spray) and Standard Oil, and as a patriotic, pro-FDR, non-isolationist political cartoonist for P.M., a liberal New York City newspaper. Geisel became a successful freelance commercial artist during The Great Depression drawing advertising for General Electric, NBC, Standard Oil, and Narragansett Brewing Company. He and his wife were soon able to move from living over a stable in Greenwich Village to better accommodations. He did not have to work regular office hours and traveled with his wife to thirty foreign countries before World War II. When the United States entered World War II, he began drawing posters for the U.S. Treasury and the U.S. War Production Board.

In 1943, Geisel joined the Army as a Captain in charge of the Animation Department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces, where he wrote and directed the Private Snafu series of adult army training films. He also wrote propaganda films including Your Job In Germany and Our Job In Japan that warned soldiers not to let down their guard against the defeated enemy. While in the Army, he was awarded the Legion of Merit. Design For Death (1947), a study of Japanese culture, won an Oscar for Best Documentary and Gerald McBoing-Boing (1950), based on an original story by Seuss, won the Academy Award for Animated Short Film. All this, as well as his later work, earned him a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.  

If it were not for a fortuitous opportunity, Dr. Seuss might not have become a household name. In May 1954, Life magazine published a report on illiteracy among school children which concluded that children were not learning how to read because their books were boring. William Ellsworth Spaulding, the director of the education division of Houghton Mifflin, responded to these concerns by compiling a list of 348 words he felt were important for first-graders to recognize. He asked Geisel to cut the list to 250 words and to write a book that children could not put down. Geisel responded with The Cat In The Hat, which has never been out of print since it was published in 1956. His children's books sell in the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year even today decades after they were written and he died. They remain timeless bestsellers that speak to people of all generations and of every age and time. Quite appropriately, Geisel's birthday, March 2nd. has been adopted as the annual date for National Read Across America Day, an initiative on reading created by the National Education Association. 

As a result of my intimate knowledge of Dr. Seuss and his characters, I was extremely pleased to once again enter the world of Dr. Seuss when I saw Seussical: The Musical at The Gallery Players in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Justine McLaughlin, the producer, brought together a talented group of performers who created a colorful world where characters drawn from different Dr. Seuss books interacted with one another in accordance with the dictates of a new story all set to music and song. The show was ably directed by Barrie Gelles. The singing and acting worked well together. Emily Clark, Co-Choreographer with Barrie Gelles, made certain the moves of the actors matched the plot. Trevor M. Pierce, the Music Director, never missed a beat when providing the music with his talented musicians. Roxanne Goodby as Props Designer, Paul M. Radassao as Scenic Designer, and Joe Haws, as Costume Designer, enabled the actors to become the characters of Dr. Seuss through complementing each other's work. The lighting by Dan Jobbins highlighted the action while sound design by Jorge Olivo enabled us to hear the actors emote at their very best.

Adrian Rifat was the standout performer amongst an outstanding cast of actors. You could not image anyone else playing Horton, the elephant. Ashley Harris successfully portrayed the personality of the despicable Mayzie LaBird, who leaves poor Horton with her egg and flies off to Palm Beach for the year instead of returning after two hours. I was so angry, I thought about eating her for supper. Stephen Foster Harris did a fine job as the Mayor. 

Before I address the issue of affirmative action in acting, let me state that although I am not a stutterer, I have had over twenty years of speech therapy to overcome a host of problems when I was young and even had speech therapy in my fifties to overcome issues that had not been resolved earlier. As a Tour Guide and College Professor, I have given hundreds of speeches. I have taught in college for the past twenty years. Therefore, in my opinion, it was a disservice to the audience not to cast the best possible actor, amateur or professional, for the role of "Jojo." Among stutterers who did not need affirmative action to succeed have been: Joe Biden, Vice-President of the United States; Emily Blunt, Actress; Russ Hicks, Award-winning public speaker in Toastmasters; James Earl Jones, Actor; Walt Manning, speech-language pathologist & Professor at the University of Memphis, an author of textbooks on stuttering; Marilyn Monroe, Actress; Jack Parr, Radio & Television Announcer; John Stossel, News Reporter and former ABC Co-Anchor; and Mel Tillis, Country Singer.

Marc Winski, a stutterer (who according to his bio is a proud advocate/leader in the NYC stuttering community) was cast to play Jojo. While I am certain Winski has the charisma and potential to be a fine actor, his stuttering was a major distraction to me. Instead of moving to employ affirmative action criteria in the professional theater, perhaps some community theaters and a few off-Broadway houses can go the way of sponsoring a "Special Theater Olympics" where all kinds of alternative casting and handicapped individuals can be given the opportunity to shine in front of their friends and family. Winski, anticipating the negative reaction of audience members, tells them in advance he thinks their opinions don't matter. Specifically, he placed in his bio the following Dr. Seuss quotation, "Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind." If you are trying to make a delicious cake and choose not to use flour and sugar, even though it is available, you shouldn't be surprised the cake doesn't turn out to be as tasty as it ought to be. I wonder how long any play would run if it were cast on the basis of political correctness instead of talent. The marketplace would teach a punishing lesson as empty seats applauded such a course of action.

Let me end with a few quotations by Dr. Seuss:

Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!

The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.

Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened.

And don't forget to see this play! It is an absolute delight! Seussical: The Musical plays through Sunday, February 21, 2016. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.GalleryPlayers.com 

2 comments:

  1. You should run more reviews by this wonderful author.

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  2. A clarification for the author of this review. The actor, Marc Winski, although a stutterer, normally does NOT stutter in performance. Performance is the one area of his life where he is stutter-free. Mr. Winski has worked at many theaters, including cruise ship performance for Disney. For this particular production, because of the way his character is presented as a dejected young outsider stumbling into a 'rehearsal' of the show, Winski, for the first time, made the acting choice to allow his stuttering be part of his character, to be at least one of the causes of his character's outsider status. Those of us in the audience who know Winski, realized immediately that he was making a conscious choice. If he had NOT made this choice, you would never have known he was a stutterer (aside from his proudly listing his activism.). During the run of this production, there were many young audience members, and I assume that some of them connected with Mr. Winski's performance partly because of how he chose to interpret the role. What concerns me more is that the author spends much energy discussing HIS speech therapy, protesting too much that HE is/was not a stutterer, then going on to criticize a theater company for casting a stutterer in a lead role. Would this author be critical of a production casting an actor confined to a wheelchair, playing a character confined to a wheelchair. Would he criticize the casting a deaf actress in the role of a deaf character? The author comes across as someone who has worked hard to overcome his unnamed speech issues, and cannot bear to witness someone else incorporating it, without shame, into a new take on a role that has been performed all over the world. The author might want to re-think his remarks. He should have made inquiries before making assumptions.

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