Theodor Seuss Geisel won a pair of Academy awards for writing Design for Death, a 1947 film documentary about Japanese warlords, and Gerald McBoing Boing, a 1950 animated cartoon. But he was better known as Dr. Seuss, the prolific author who launched a new trend in children's literature with such limited-vocabulary picture-story books as The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
Local director Edwin Fronheiser has formed Geisel's collected works into a play for children and adults titled Swimming in Seuss, which is now being presented by Memory Productions at the Oriental Theater. It's a stimulating show that boasts several enthusiastic portrayals and such immortal lines as "I do not like them, Sam I am" and "These things are fun, and fun is good." Occasionally, though, the two-hour production suffers from poor staging, amateurish lighting, ill-advised musical choices and a couple of drawn-out, recurring and predictable episodes.
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Shortly after the theater's fluorescent lights are abruptly switched off, strains of the second movement of Dvorak's New World Symphony fill the elliptical auditorium. (Other than to suggest a reflective mood, it's hard to fathom just why an 1893 orchestral work evocative of Native American music, spiritual melodies and the plantation songs of Stephen Foster has anything to do with the half-sense dialogue we're about to hear.) Then we're quickly introduced to an ensemble of seven similarly costumed performers (Gina Atkins, Heston Gray, Scott Gibson, Susan Lyles, Ron Mediatore, Heather Peterson and Jill Redson-Smith, none of whom are given individual program credits for the characters they portray) who energetically perform a Seuss favorite, One Fish, Two Fish. The remainder of Act One consists of mildly entertaining versions of Fox in Sox, I'm Not Getting Up Today and Sneetches. There's also a cleverly staging of the story "The Big Brag," several ponderous selections from The Zax, and a spirited, if sometimes unintelligible, rendition of Green Eggs and Ham. Punctuated by a hodgepodge of musical interludes that range from inappropriate classical works to pleasing calliope music, Act Two features The Butter Battle, The Lorax, What Am I Scared Of? and several wearisome readings from Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? An aimlessly staged Cat in the Hat and a heartwarming How the Grinch Stole Christmas conclude the sometimes tedious mishmash.
To their credit, all of the actors strive to convey the whimsy of the good doctor's off-the-wall epigrams. This despite the fact that Fronheiser's far-flung staging too often maroons his performers on the vast platform's poorly illuminated upstage sections. Given the cavernous Oriental's lack of intimacy, why not confine the action to a smaller area of the stage that's closer to the audience, or use the auditorium's generous aisle space to foster a sense of immediacy with young theatergoers? Fronheiser and company's ambitious efforts make for a sometimes delightful evening but one that ultimately affords more opportunities for bedtime snoozery than it does magical mystery.
Swimming in Seuss, presented by Memory Productions through January 3 at the Oriental Theater, 4335 West 44th Avenue, 303-433-4494.