On the face of it, the idea of turning the enchanting stories of Dr. Seuss into a musical seems a "can't-miss" project. The charmingly rhythmic tales written by Theodor Seuss Geisel, buoyed by a raft of surprising, language-distorting rhymes, would seem to be a natural. However, Seussical! The Musical falls well short of earning its exclamation point, despite the earnest efforts of the Beck Center company.
As anyone who has read even one Dr. Seuss book knows, there is a merry and mischievous musicality to all his passages that requires no further embellishment. So when those loopy rhymes are jammed into the composition machine by Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music), the result is an oddly charmless collection of tunes that rarely rise above the banal. Evidently, Ahrens and Flaherty also assembled the story by stapling together a couple Horton-the-elephant books (Horton Hears a Who and Horton Hatches the Egg) with additional characters and moments from other Seuss inventions.
In brief, the placid and well-meaning Horton (Patrick Carroll) is convinced that he can hear the inhabitants of a speck of dust -- the people of Whoville -- and is dedicated to helping them survive. He is simultaneously pursued by Gertrude McFuzz, a tail-feather-challenged bird who is keen on creating an interspecies family with the pachyderm (someone alert the Ohio legislature, fast!). Meanwhile, there is action afoot on the dust mote, as Mr. and Mrs. Mayor try to rein in their son Jojo (Christopher Gaertner), who is determined to think for himself, even as he is led astray by the Cat in the Hat. It's a bit convoluted, sure, but the major problem is that the show's authors never capture the giddy bounce of Dr. Seuss's language in either speech or song.
Beyond the script's shortcomings, director Scott Spence mounts a production that is desperately short on the whimsy that is Dr. Seuss's signature. The central role of the Cat in the Hat is played by talented Marc Moritz more as a self-satisfied tummler at a Catskills resort than as the zany, borderline anarchist Seuss created. Without a manically id-driven Cat in the Hat centering the action, the play disintegrates into separate bits and pieces. Although some songs display momentary grace, particularly the Horton-Gertrude duet "Notice Me, Horton," there are many more forgettable ditties (including the insufferably didactic "How Lucky You Are," which is reprised at least 5 -- or was it 13? -- times). Some performers, however, do capture the magic of their characters, including Tracee Patterson as the lovably lovesick Gertrude, Jared Nichols and Jennifer Raimondi as Jojo's anxious parents, and Carrie Hall as the torchy Mayzie la Bird.
Adding to the rather dour atmosphere is scenic designer Richard Gould's neo-industrial erector set, which offers few of the swoops and curlicues so prevalent in Geisel's art, and Erik M. Seidel's cool, distancing lighting. Perhaps the lesson is clear: Dr. Seuss is perfect, just as he is -- on the pages of books, in the hands of kids.