Most of “Seussical: The Musical,” the Dr. Seuss-inspired musical that mashes up characters and concepts from Theodor Geisel’s library of legendary books, takes place in the imaginary Jungle of Nool, where Horton the Elephant and his supercharged ears live.
With that said, the Children’s Theater of Madison production for young audiences begins in an unusual place: A middle school art class.
“I knew right off that I wanted to do something different,” says director Brian Cowing. “And art class is where I got my bug to be creative. In life and in this version of the musical, it’s a teacher that gives that spark.”
In CTM’s staging, the art teacher comes onstage to get the kids thinking outside the box, eventually morphing into the Cat in the Hat. Given the many ways in which public school teachers have found themselves under attack, both locally and on the national level, Cowing’s artistic decision seems like a political point. But Cowing says he came up with the concept more than a year ago—well before Betsy DeVos was nominated for, much less confirmed as, secretary of the Department of Education. Nevertheless, Cowing’s vision feels like a callback to Geisel’s early days as a political cartoonist, an experience that would later inform many of his most popular works.
“'The Lorax' is about environmentalism,” Cowing notes. “'Horton Hears a Who' is all about anti-isolationism, which is obviously huge right now.”
Don’t expect the show to clumsily bludgeon anyone with a particular agenda, though. That wasn’t Seuss’s style and it’s not Cowing’s either. The show is intended to be a celebration of creativity and inspiration. Or, in the parlance of the show itself, “the thinks you can think.”
“Kids can spot a moral right away, and we want to be aware of that” says Cowing. “The kids will see these fun characters, and the adults will see that Seuss really has something to say.”
Both parts of the audience will also see some serious acting stamina. The kids, including Madeline Uphoff (the daughter of current “Hamilton” Chicago star Karen Olivo, who’s making her CTM debut), will be onstage for the entire show.
“This is a marathon,” jokes Cowing. “But the kids are getting a lot out of it.”
“Seussical” performances take place March 4-5 and 10-12 in the Overture Center Playhouse. For ticket information, click here.
Aaron R. Conklin blogs about Madison theater for madisonmagazine.com.