And to think that I saw it at ACT: Amherst Community Theater readies for its newest production, ‘Seussical’

Pam Plumer, left, and Grace Plumer work on making parts of a clover field, a key piece of scenery for Amherst Community Theater’s production of “Seussical.”

Pam Plumer, left, and Grace Plumer work on making parts of a clover field, a key piece of scenery for Amherst Community Theater’s production of “Seussical.” STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Autumn DeLuca, middle, Grace Plumer and Bob Gustafson as The Cat in the Hat rehearse for Amherst Community Theater’s coming production of “Seussical.” It opens Jan. 11 at UMass Amherst.

Autumn DeLuca, middle, Grace Plumer and Bob Gustafson as The Cat in the Hat rehearse for Amherst Community Theater’s coming production of “Seussical.” It opens Jan. 11 at UMass Amherst.

Cast members for Amherst Community Theater’s coming production of “Seussical” rehearse at Amherst Regional Middle School a few days before Christmas. The show is a mashup of several Dr. Seuss stories and multiple Seuss characters.

Cast members for Amherst Community Theater’s coming production of “Seussical” rehearse at Amherst Regional Middle School a few days before Christmas. The show is a mashup of several Dr. Seuss stories and multiple Seuss characters. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

The Whos from “Horton” rehearse for “Seussical.”

The Whos from “Horton” rehearse for “Seussical.”

Led by Bob Gustafson as The Cat in the Hat, the cast for Amherst Community Theater’s production of “Seussical” rehearses at Amherst Regional Middle School.

Led by Bob Gustafson as The Cat in the Hat, the cast for Amherst Community Theater’s production of “Seussical” rehearses at Amherst Regional Middle School. STAFF PHOTOS/DAN LITTLE

”Watch how I do it”: Young singers join older ones during a recent rehearsal for one of the songs for “Seussical,” the new Amherst Community Theater production that opens Jan. 11 at UMass Amherst.

”Watch how I do it”: Young singers join older ones during a recent rehearsal for one of the songs for “Seussical,” the new Amherst Community Theater production that opens Jan. 11 at UMass Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Bob Gustafson, center, as The Cat in the Hat, leads cast members of Amherst Community Theater’s production of “Seussical” in a recent rehearsal at Amherst Regional Middle School.

Bob Gustafson, center, as The Cat in the Hat, leads cast members of Amherst Community Theater’s production of “Seussical” in a recent rehearsal at Amherst Regional Middle School. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 01-05-2024 8:59 PM

He’s one of the most famous and beloved children’s book authors ever, and he grew about 20 miles south of here. So the work of Theodor Seuss Geisel — better known, or course, as Dr. Seuss — seemed like a natural fit for the new musical by Amherst Community Theater.

“Seussical,” which comes to Bowker Auditorium at the University of Massachusetts Amherst beginning Jan. 11, is what director Kimberly Overtree Karlin calls “a great mashup” of a number of Dr. Seuss stories and characters, providing just the kind of broad forum for a production that includes adults, teens, and young children.

“This is a community production, and it’s really important that it reflects our community,” said Karlin, who has directed four previous ACT musicals. “I work hard to make these shows for an all-ages ensemble.”

Indeed, there are 60 cast members in “Seussical,” a fairly typical number for an Amherst Community Theater show, and there are over 20 people serving on the production side of things, including set, costume, and lighting designers, a choreographer and musical director, and numerous other positions.

Add in orchestra members, set builders, and the many volunteers who help out in different ways, and about 300 people have been involved in putting “Seussical” together, Karlin says.

“We’ve logged about 300 hours in terms of set-building so far,” Karlin said in an interview a few days before Christmas.

“Seussical” has another big appeal for her and the many people involved in the production. It’s built primarily around five Seuss stories that explore conflict and bad traits and conduct — jealousy, ridicule, oppression — but which also show children how cooperation, kindness and perseverance can make for a better world.

Those stories, in turn, are recast, with new elements and characters from several other Seuss books, to tell a whimsical tale of how conflict can be resolved and different creatures can find ways to come together.

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“It’s just a very sweet and universal model of generosity,” said Karlin.

As Karlin writes in production notes about the musical, “We hope to inspire a culture of kindness and understanding. As we navigate the challenges of a ‘cancel culture’ world, let us celebrate the beauty of embracing diverse viewpoints and finding common ground.”

The musical features some of the most notable characters from Dr. Seuss stories, such as The Cat in the Hat and Horton the elephant. The latter, in Seuss’ two original stories, discovers a tiny world (the Whos) on a speck of dust and protects it from other animals who mock him, and then he hatches an egg whose lazy mother, the bird Mayzie, can’t be bothered to look after.

In “Seussical,” those stories are tweaked in different ways: Gertrude McFuzz, for instance, a bird who in the original Seuss story frets because she has only one feather, comes to admire Horton in “Seussical” for the way he protects the Whos.

For the ACT production, set builders have constructed what Karlin calls a “Seussian wonderland,” a colorful design that incorporates many elements of the author’s illustrations: rich colors, looping structures, and imaginary foliage like the lollipop-like Truffula trees that were at the center of Seuss’ 1971 environmentally themed story “The Lorax.”

The builders “have done a wonderful job on the set,” said Karlin. “I think it’s one of the best we’ve ever had ... It looks like Dr. Seuss.”

The cast, which began rehearsing in October, finished up its last rehearsal from 2023 at Amherst Regional Middle School a few days before Christmas, where some of the scenery was being worked on.

The specially built set, which was constructed on its own platform was put into place when rehearsals began at Bowker Auditorium at UMass the first week of January, in preparation for the musical’s Jan. 11 opening.

“Seussical” has an unusual history. It was created by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, theater veterans and Tony Award winners who have collaborated on a number of successful Broadway musicals such as “Ragtime.”

Flaherty and Ahrens’ new work generated quite a bit of buzz when the musical was in its early days of production in 1999. But after opening on Broadway in late 2000 to much fanfare, critics’ reviews of “Seussical” were not favorable, and the musical closed in May 2001 after losing some $11 million, according to a New York Times article from that month.

But Flaherty and Ahrens later reworked the material as the musical went on a national tour, where it met with more success, and according to a number of reports, it has since become one of the most produced musicals in the U.S. by school and amateur groups.

Karlin, a teacher at Charlemont Academy, says the ACT production actually represents the third time she’s worked on “Seussical,” including a 2013 production with Arena Civic Theater in Turners Falls for which she handled the choreography.

“Seussical” has 12 main characters, including The Cat in the Hat (Bob Gustafson), Horton (Jackie Mendonsa), Gertrude (Grace Plummer), Yertle the Turtle (Henry Loua), and The Boy, or JoJo (Autumn DeLuca).

Along with those characters are several dancing and singing ensembles of varying sizes, with as few as three people and as many as 17. The groups are based on Seussian characters such as The Wickershams, monkeys that give Horton a hard time as he tries to protect the tiny world of The Whos, the creatures on the speck of dust.

The production’s songs point back to some of the original Seuss stories and address the revised story line. In “Biggest Blame Fool,” for instance, most of the jungle animals mock Horton for his insistence in protecting the Whos.

Karlin jokes that ACT members “maybe got a little spoiled” putting together last year’s production, “The Little Mermaid,” because they had much more time to think about the production and design costumes for it because the pandemic delayed the show for two years.

“This year we’re back to our normal schedule, which is a little more intense,” she said.

But she says “Seussical” has come together well overall. “Everyone is thrilled to bring this together.”

There will be nine performances of “Seussical,” Jan. 11-14 and 18-21, at Bowker Auditorium at UMass Amherst, with evening and matinee presentations. For tickets and additional information, visit amherstacts.org.