It would have astonished most audience members at "Seussical" to learn that Theodor Geisel - Dr. Seuss - wrote "Horton Hears a Who!" partly as an allegory about American occupation in post-World War II Japan. But that's the mark of a classic: No matter how often you come back to it, you find something new.
Lyricist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty, who have mashed up more than a dozen short Seuss stories into this musical in rhyme, find in them a series of life lessons every child ought to know. A person's a person, no matter how small. War, except in dire circumstances, is always lunacy. Parenthood isn't defined by who made the baby but by who cares for it the most.
And what Children's Theatre of Charlotte has found in this twisty narrative is madcap humor and emotional warmth, accented by the fantastically inventive costumes of Connie Furr and the minimalist set of Ryan Weininger, lit by David Fillmore Jr. to resemble anything from pop art to a blank canvas on which we can project our own ideas.
Director Alan Poindexter chose the original two-act version, toward which Broadway critics were lukewarm 11 years ago. (It was later cut to 90 minutes, and the short version gets done more frequently now.) Poindexter's choice pays off, more often than not.
True, it results in irrelevant cameos that serve no function except to give some youngsters a moment onstage: Sam I Am and the Lorax literally walk on and off in Act 1, almost before we know who they are. The show holds more than two dozen songs and reprises, many of them narrative numbers that don't lend themselves to catchy tunes.
On the other hand, the cut version leaves out the infamous Butter Battle (about which side of a piece of bread should be buttered) and other segments Poindexter obviously loves, and the tireless cast keeps this show zooming forward toward the curtain call.
Five characters play leads. The Cat in the Hat (gregarious Mark Sutton) turns up as narrator and bit player in almost every scene. Horton (gentle Chaz Pofahl) both saves Whoville from destruction and hatches the egg left behind by the fly-by-night Mayzie (Lucia Stetson, costumed like a Vegas chorus girl and exuding the same brassiness when doing Ron Chisholm's choreography.)
Gertrude McFuzz (appealingly goofy Susan Roberts Knowlson) has an interspecies crush on Horton and laments his failure to notice. JoJo (spirited Sam Faulkner), who represents freedom of thought, turns up as the intelligent, often ignored voice of youth.
Ahrens and Flaherty collaborated on the poetic libretto and have taken some of the sting out of the stories. The Cat occasionally provokes mischief but never becomes the destructive, anarchic force of the book. Mayzie is selfish, but not the shrieking harpy of Seuss' story; when Horton claims her egg at last, she hovers nearby with a melancholic air. But nobody stays sad or mad for long, even the Sour Kangaroo who mocks Horton (sassily sung by Nicole Watts).
I think Geisel, who died nine years before the musical reached Broadway, might have approved: There's darkness in his books, but it usually dissipates before the final pages. And I think the child in him might have delighted in the puppetry and shadow projection and gaudy feathers and twitching tails that make this "Seussical" as visually vivid as anything I've seen Children's Theatre do.
By the way, the author first wanted his pen name to have a German pronunciation, like his real German surname: It was to be "soice," as in "voice." But public mispronunciation wore him down, and he finally agreed it should rhyme with "Goose" (as in "Mother"). I'm sure the authors of "Seussical" the musical approve that choice.