Review: The Cat in the Hat

The cast of The Cat in the Hat                                                                         Photo by K. Talley Photography

By Larry Laneer
January 27, 2020

You never can tell what you’ll get when you go to the theater. What may look good on paper can flop onstage. A case in point is Lyric Theatre’s The Cat in the Hat, adapted from the popular children’s book by Dr. Seuss and now at the Plaza. It would seem you couldn’t go wrong with Dr. Seuss, but under certain circumstances, you can. This show is a surprising disappointment, considering the tremendous success Lyric had last season with the children-oriented Curious George: The Golden Meatball.

The problem is although it’s fun for young readers to read, The Cat in the Hat does not cut it as material for the stage. The thin storyline doesn’t come to much of a point, unless it’s “pick up your playthings.” And at the end of this production, the cast raises doubts in the minds of children about whether they should withhold important information from parents.

Speaking of parents, most of them around me at the reviewed performance sat mainly stone- faced. A man who looked as if he could be someone’s great-grandfather slept through most of the show. The production runs just under 45 minutes, and I didn’t see much restlessness, but who knows what would have happened if it lasted much longer.

Katie Mitchell did the stage adaption, which was produced originally by the National Theatre of Great Britain. Lyric is doing the show as a co-production with Adventure Theatre in Washington, D.C., where it was designed and originated. Scenic designer Matthew Buttrey and lighting designer Alberto Segarra (with assistance from Fabian J. Garcia, a Lyric regular) have given the production a colorful look that recreates Dr. Seuss’s style down to some detail. Sound designer Evan Cook (with assistance from Bryson Ezell, another Lyric regular) makes sound effects ranging from realistic to cartoonish. Notice the splash when the fish dives back into her bowl. Danielle Preston’s costumes blend in with the rest of the design.

Oddly, the production employs a recorded score that seems to include no original music. The music is incidental; this is not a musical, although it includes a little dancing. Some of the music is so familiar it seems out of place here, Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme and the “Final Jeopardy” music from television’s Jeopardy, for example You even hear a few bars of the ominous minor second from Jaws.

Directed by Adam Immerwahr, the youthful cast presses on gamely acting and manipulating puppets. Josiah Brooks plays the eponymous cat in the hat. Eli Bradley plays Boy and Kalyn Glover is his sister, Sally. As Fish, Lexi Windsor brings some experience and solidity to the cast. Operating puppets, Katelyn Curtain plays Thing 1/Kitten 1, and at the reviewed performance, Jonah White was Thing 2/Kitten 2 (Kaleb Michael Bruza usually plays these roles). Regular listeners to NPR’s All Things Considered will recognize the recorded voice of Ari Shapiro as the Narrator.

Be sure to stay afterward for questions and answers. Cast members introduce themselves and tell their colleges and hometowns and take questions from the audience. One youth asked how long they rehearsed the show (five hours per rehearsal for two weeks). A lad asked how they “make the lights go on and off real fast,” which let the cast explain the strobe effect and introduce the light crew seated behind and above the audience. A girl asked if Thing 1 and Thing 2 are boys or girls (Thing 1, a boy; Thing 2, a girl). Another girl asked about the “sticks” she could see onstage. A cast member explained sheepishly the sticks are used to manipulate “rod puppets” and are painted a color to camouflage them, so they blend in with the scenery. It didn’t work for at least one viewer. Alas, just like much of the show.

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, adapted by Katie Mitchell
Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma
10:00 a.m. Thursdays, 10:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Fridays, 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Saturdays, 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. Sundays, through February 9
Plaza Theatre
1725 NW 16th St.

Review: Miss Saigon

Anthony Festa and Emily Bautista in Miss Saigon                                  Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Larry Laneer
January 16, 2020

It takes a real tragedy to make you feel good at the theater. And the more they pour on the spectacle, the better it gets. A case in point is the musical Miss Saigon, the Vietnam War story that’s based on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, an earlier operatic drama about havoc wreaked by Americans in Asia. Both the opera and the musical today raise whole new controversies.

Now at the Thelma Gaylord as part of the OKC Broadway touring series, this production is the road version of the 2017-2018 Broadway revival, directed by Laurence Connor. Set in Saigon and other locations between 1975 and 1978, Miss Saigon closely follows the Madama Butterfly story line. An American soldier (Chris) meets a young Vietnamese woman (Kim) and love ensues, although they may not have the same understanding about the true nature of the relationship.

With a score by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr., Alain Boublil, and Michael Mahler, this musical is operatic. The sung-through score soars from aria to—oh, sorry—song to song, while a large cast fights through war and its aftermath. The original London and Broadway productions of this 1989 show famously featured a realistic helicopter flying onstage. When the first touring version of the show played here in 2004, the aircraft was depicted in an inadequate video. Stagecraft has made advances since then, and this production includes a pretty good onstage helicopter.

The production design by Totie Driver and Matt Kinley features large set pieces that move fluidly through many scene changes. Projections by Luke Halls, chiaroscuro lighting by Bruno Poet, Andreane Neofitou’s costumes, and Mick Potter’s sound design combine to create a spectacle worthy of grand opera. A few times, this production even sounds like it’s being sung in a foreign language. Miss Saigon isn’t a dancing show, but Bob Avian’s musical staging features some acrobatic moves in the first act.

The first-rate cast gives strong performances throughout the show. Anthony Festa (Chris) and Emily Bautista (Kim) have convincing chemistry, strong singing voices, and solid acting chops.  J. Daughtry goes from jerk to humanitarian as the soldier John. Jinwoo Jung as Thuy (and Thuy’s ghost!) and Ellie Fishman as Ellen are fine in featured roles. As The Engineer, Red Concepción is excellent as the smarmy opportunist. Actually, the character illustrates achingly  the desperation many people find themselves in during times of strife. Conceptión’s second act “The American Dream” rings ruefully true. At the reviewed performance, young Ryker Huetter as Tam got the loudest curtain call; I bet this happens no matter who plays the role.

Recently, some commentators have raised legitimate objections about the opera and musical regarding racism and denigration of Asian women. You will get no disagreement about that from me. But I saw the show with a friend who lived in Saigon until 1979, and she was then only a few years younger than Kim is in the show. My friend said she did not see the musical as racist or denigrating. In fact, she said Miss Saigon depicts precisely life in the city and the desperate measures some young women like Kim had to take at the time.

Like art works throughout history, Miss Saigon shows war to be what it is:  Hell for everyone, not just the soldiers and those in the theater of war. Will humanity ever learn its lesson? I’m not optimistic.

Miss Saigon by Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Richard Maltby, Jr.,
Alain Boublil, and Michael Mahler
OKC Broadway
7:30 p.m. Thursday, January 16, 8:00 p.m. Friday, January 17, 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, January 18, 1:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Sunday, January 19
Thelma Gaylord Performing Arts Theatre
201 N. Walker Ave.