I’ve always thought that Ted Geisel’s Dr. Seuss stories contain some mystical link with young readers that will forever elude grown-ups. They’re whimsical, charming and ridiculous, yes, but armed with a sly subversive edge that stimulates children without rousing adult complications.
That is at work in Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, a stage adaptation of the much-cherished tale from the late author and illustrator whoseHow the Grinch Stole Christmas has been an on-going holidays bonanza for the Old Globe Theatre lo, these many seasons.
But this adaptation of Loraxhas some inviting room for adults, too. In fact, judging by some of the clunky word-play (it’s only a matter of time until “thorax” gets introduced as an arch alternative to the title), a real effort has been made to include multiple generations and agendas.
And it works well enough to make the evening chug right along for all us demographics.
The adaptation, by England’s David Greig with sturdy melodies and lyrics off the retro shelf by Charlie Fink, uses 16 singer-actors, three of whom do a surprisingly smooth job of handling the Japanese-style Bunraku puppet in the title role.
This doughty strutter can flair its stick arms, stand in bold Peter Pan akimbo and quite dominate a crowd with its large and eloquent eyes and those aggressive mustaches. Grotesque and aggressive puppet characters onstage usually are scary moving toward redeemed, but this little guy, as designed and built by Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes, is indomitable underdog hero all the way.
The effect is due in the largest part to H. Adam Harris, the lead puppeteer and surprisingly robust voice of Lorax, at once domineering and disappearing. His co-workers on the puppet are Meghan Kreidler and Rick Miller but really, everybody has many duties in Max Webster’s romp staging and the bottomless valise of Drew McOnie’s choreography.
For this fable of rampant greed and thoughtless disregard of nature’s needs, the adaptors have tossed in crowd-pleasers from fart jokes through dying swans to Donald Trump locutions, usually pleasing more audience than not. The script doesn’t flow freely – a flashback staggers, the finale is toothless – but the tale gets told with enough nuance to please a range of tastes. And the ideas emerge stern and specific: Forests are not necessarily eternal. Greed can overwhelm wisdom if nobody’s paying attention. And if superhero protectors are helping protect, they may not be immortal.
Hats off to the talent pool in Minneapolis, from whence cometh most of these actors, assembled no doubt by that city’s Children’s Theatre Company, which co-sponsored this project with the Old Globe and London’s Old Vic. Thus continues the evolution of modern musical theatre performers who not only act, dance and sing but also play music and build structures in mime. That certainly includes this gang, which might even cobble together a couple of sports teams if required.
Rob Howell’s décor certainly seems sufficiently Seussical to my eyes, which haven’t really paid any attention literally for decades. The Rube Goldberg edge to the piles of nonsense furniture seems right and the fetid evolution of the exploiters’ costumes as the greed grows speaks with solid conviction. Jon Clark’s lighting helps a lot too.
I have heard more than once that Geisel himself expressed a preference that his books not be adapted for performance, and that’s easy to understand, even given all the successful labors in evidence here. He did give his tales a unique look and feel of which he probably felt protective.
What’s done is done, though. And the best news is that the story on this occasion is delivered with juice enough to challenge but not overwhelm young imaginations.
(Continues on the Old Globe Shiley Stage at 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; and at noon Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 12, 2018.)