ELK GROVE VILLAGE, Ill. (Dec. 9) — We learn just about all the really important lessons in life by the time we’re in kindergarten. This is not only why we have to support early learning programs in our schools if we want to address ills and sins that shine in new lights among us since the election but also why a high school musical production based on a few of Dr Seuss’s children’s books is so relevant today.
Those ills and sins of which I speak are expressed mainly by older children and by adults in our communities, but kids learn the attitudes and behaviors underlying them long before that. That’s why it’s entirely reactive for a school system like Howard County Public Schools in Maryland to let a racist photograph or the painting of a swastika on playground equipment get the best of them and take their attention away, using a petition drive, from the stuff schools do.
Better to be proactive and tell 5-year-olds a story about small people who live on a speck. Take one mom, sitting in front of me at Elk Grove High School’s production of Seussical the Musical, which closes tonight, no doubt to a packed house. She brought her 5-year-old daughter, who is white, and her daughter’s friend, who is black or biracial. The lights dim a few times to give patrons a chance to get to their seats. The two girls look at each other and then at mom, and she tells them what that’s all about.
The 27-member pit orchestra, directed by Ron Fiorito, starts the overture, as a silhouette of a large red-and-white striped hat is visible on stage. Soon, a cat wearing a hat (Claire Glennon) emerges, and the stage comes alive with lights of many colors (lighting operator James Stein) and a huge ensemble, almost too many of them for this small stage (the school was built in 1966).
“Oh, the thinks you can think,” sings the Cat in the Hat, and these two girls in front of me start grooving, dancing in their seats, practically from the first downbeat. From that moment, our eyes, ears, and hearts were a captive audience, and performers never let go. If you can capture the undivided attention of two 5-year-olds, well, I don’t know what else you can ask.
The musical, performed in one act and lasting about 75 minutes here, has only a little dialog that performers don’t sing. Next we get a glimpse of Horton (Sheldon Adams), an elephant who likes birds, it seems, and who sums up the moral of the story, in song of course: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” With his sweet manner, he defends the Whoville community, who all live on a clover he carries around, loses, and finds again, with the help of his bird friend Gertrude (Emily Franke).
Try as she might—she’s loyal to Horton and loves him, but she’s shy about her feelings—she just can’t get Horton to notice her, as his eyes are on the vivacious but self-centered Amazing Mayzie (Alex Williams), who actually does have a better-looking feather, as far as that goes. Ms Williams’s commanding voice is matched only by her character’s selfishness in front of Horton.
But eventually, thanks to engaging performances from both Ms Franke and Mr Adams, Gertrude’s self-consciousness about a less-than-perfect tail changes to her acceptance of who she is. After Horton sees her that way too, she becomes the adoptive mother of the elephant-bird Horton has cared for since it was an egg.
Standing up for little people isn’t easy, Horton finds out as Sour Kangaroo (Sara Kouvelis) loudly charges him in court with standing up for the Whos. Apparently that’s a crime in her book since she can’t even see them! Ms Kouvelis and her ability to raise her voice above anyone else in the room—or even above the whole room—are perfect for the role of a prosecutor, especially when combined with a raunchy flare-up in the pit, provided by all-state jazz trombonist Matt Jarosch. But after we all realize the Whos are real, she’s converted.
Ms Glennon, as the Cat in the Hat, is noted for her versatility and stage presence. The Cat plays many roles in this play, including the narrator of the show, a mentor to a young Who child, a bailiff in the court case, a piano player who resembles Louie Armstrong, and an auctioneer. So it’s not just 5-year-olds in the audience who are engaged. During the auction, she takes bids from audience members, at one point announcing “Sold!” … “to the elderly gentleman, wearing a Seussical T-shirt. I heard that’s a pretty good production,” she fires off.
As she leads the entire company in the finale, we once again note that whether you’re an elephant, a cat, a bird, or a Who, and no matter where you are or whom you’re sitting with, you have all the important things in common with everyone else:
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.
Do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
Lesson heard. Actually we can’t take our eyes off of it as Elk Grove engaged us from the stage and pit. Can we listen? Will we learn?