PLEASE BE WARNED: STROBE LIGHTS ARE USED IN THIS PRODUCTION!
TAKE A LOOK at the world around you. Every inch of everything you glance at is striving for your attention, be it in the form of social media or marketing or beggars in the street, touting their misery. There are no clear moments of silence, where you get to gather yourself and think some thoughts. And this applies as much to children as to adults. Which makes it a mystery as to why a production such as Seussical Jr is such a crude assault on the senses: there is no discrepancy between the buzz and thrust of the outside world and that constructed by this play. Only that if you’re five years old and the sensory stimulus is too much for you in this play, you may not have the confidence to push your way out of the space so you can catch your breath.
Sadly, Seussical Jr does all of this. With the sound ramped up all the way to such an extent that occasionally the language of the performers is no longer recognisable as English, and a regular lashing of very harsh strobes – there is a warning for this on the theatre’s door: not on the programme or the press release – so much is lost. It’s even sadder because this work tells a completely delightful and complicated tale, moored as it is in classical Seussical illogic and beautifully defined characters. Theatre aficionados and children who probably have outgrown children’s theatre may remember this work at the National Children’s Theatre, where the late Francois Theron reprised the role of Horton the Elephant.
So, when you are five years old and you are presented with a bird who believes she hasn’t sufficient tail feathers, or an elephant who is nursing a bird’s egg to life, or even a little boy named Jojo who is empowered by a mysterious cat to think all kinds of madcap things, it’s enough to deal with. When bright lights are poking into your sensibilities and the shriek of the cast is unintelligible, it feels too much.
And there’s more. The staged work features a displacement of space: the Whos, you see, are a very tiny bunch of people. Horton (Luciano Zuppa) is, well, an elephant. He can hear the Whos, who live on a fluffly clover plant, but he cannot see them. You, in the audience, can, because there’s a nifty stage direction which puts them upstage. It’s complicated. If you’re struggling to hear the words and blinking too much from the lights, you may not get it.
Having said all that, Katlego Nche almost saves this show. As the inimitable Cat in the Hat, he’s completely lovable in a Joel Grey from Cabaret kind of way. There is wit in his presence and energy in how he engages with Jojo (Kieran Wagner). And as the work unfolds, amid furry stuffed onesies and animal characters with their human faces beneath their respective beaks or trunks, a spark of creative magic from the boy and his very large fantasy cat permeates the space. Or as much of the space that the big noise and harsh lights allows.
- Seussical Jr is composed and written by Stephen Flaherty based on the book by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, and directed by Jill Girard and Keith Smith. It features design by Sandy Dyer (musical staging), Dale Scheepers (musical direction), Grant Knottenbelt (lighting, set and audio-visual), Liam McGregor (sound) and Sean McGrath, Merry Whillier and Trudie Stroh (costumes), and is performed by Thokozani Jiyane, Masego Mothibakgo, Noni Mkhonto, Katlego Nche, Megan Spencer and Luciano Zuppa, with a child cast comprising Demi Catacousinos, Gabrielle DeGama, Rethabile Joala, Phenyo Kgokane, Isabella Kirsten, Lihle Mahlangu, Kahlan Mailich, Mahlohonolo Malie, Micaela Mans, Aishwarya Moodley, Leora Myers, Angelica Rennie, Gabrielle Shapiro, Lwazi Sithole, Zach Smith, Oliver Robert Thompson and Kieran Wagner. (This review is premised on a performance featuring Demi, Rethabile, Phenyo, Isabella, Kahlan, Micaela, Aishwarya, Leora and Kieran), at the People’s Theatre, Joburg Theatre complex in Braamfontein, until April 22. Call 011 403 2340.