Monday, April 23, 2018

The Lorax is a Scintillating Show for Our Times

The Children's Theatre Company's latest show is a perfect piece for Earth Day. 


Photo by Dan Norman

Literary adaptations to stage or screen are always a tricky thing. Few fans are as ardent about faithful story-lines as book readers, and navigating the process of visualizing the collective imagination of textual characters down to the minutest detail can be a daunting task.

Photo by Dan Norman

In some ways, children's literature allows for more creative freedom in this process than novels do. After all, children's books are quite visual and can provide a more literal template from page to stage, eliminating choices that are harder when an author-approved image or vision isn't available.

Photo by Dan Norman

I imagine, however, that Dr. Seuss would provide a unique challenge of its own no matter what age range it's intended for. The imagery of Dr. Seuss books is so iconic, so unique, and so unlike anything we see in the natural world, that making it feasibly come to life involves a crazy amount of work that few companies are willing to take on. Thankfully the Twin Cities' Children's Theatre Company (CTC) is bravely up to the task (and then some); they've adapted multiple Dr. Seuss works for the stage before, but their latest The Lorax, which opened last weekend, might just be their best yet.

Photo by Dan Norman

One of the lesser known (but most explicitly political) of Seuss's tales, The Lorax is a parable about what happens when the environment becomes the least of society's priorities. A man named the Onceler is looking for a great idea to make himself rich when he stumbles upon a forest of truffula trees. The unusual trees provide fuel, food, and a remarkable material that can be knitted into fabric. The Onceler instantly seizes upon the knitting concept and knits the fronds into thneeds, a useless object that nevertheless is instantly seized upon in the consumer world. The trees are guarded by an ancient creature called the Lorax, who instantly demands the Onceler stop chopping trees down to make his thneeds; he explains that the trees require enormous amounts of care and time to grow and that chopping them down makes an irreversible error that will eliminate them forever. The Onceler ignores the Lorax's warnings, consumed by the wealth generated by thneed demand. He continues to edge out the Lorax's forest, removing trees at an ever-increasing rate until they are entirely gone. Once all the truffula trees are extinguished the Onceler sees his mistake, but it's too late: the Lorax leaves the annihilated landscape that used to be his truffula forest, and the Onceler is left to live in the wasteland of his greed. Only with the hope brought much later by a small child hearing the story for the first time can he begin to imagine a brighter future.

Photo by Dan Norman

This production has some changes from the book to flesh it out, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. The show is shepherded by an expert, dynamic cast, all of whom seem to be having the time of their lives. Stephen Epps is the perfect choice for the greedy Onceler. H. Adam Harris is wonderful as the voice of the Lorax, and he performs some magically expressive puppet work with the help of Meghan Kreidler and Rick Miller that is truly captivating. Rajané Katurah explodes off the stage in a dynamic solo, and she's going to be one to watch in coming productions. Ryan Colbert remains one of the best new regular actors on a CTC stage, with a vividly expressive performance that had all the kids giggling. The rest of the cast is great too, rotating through multiple roles (and costumes - man those changes are quick!) at a lightning pace and with clear passion, especially Ansa Akya and Stephanie Bertumen.

Photo by Dan Norman

Speaking of the costumes, holy cow - the production value of The Lorax is perfection from top to bottom. I'd love to know how much they spent developing each piece, because the clear attention to the smallest detail is evident at all levels. The costumes and sets, designed by Rob Howell, retain an exclusive Dr. Seuss feel and a crazy amount of texture. You can almost tangibly sense the softness of each truffula tree or the slime in the thneed factory, and the costumes burst off the stage in a riot of color. The puppets, designed by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, are a marvel. They have so much expressiveness, and they are moved so masterfully and expressively, that you are totally mesmerized every time they're on stage - from the flying swans to the singing fish to the Lorax himself (on first sight of whom the audience burst into applause), these are some entrancing puppets. The choreography by Drew McOnie is tightly performed and jazzy, perfectly mimicking the mood of the plot, and Emily Michaels King does some beautiful solo work as the dance leader. The lighting design (by Jon Clark) and sound design (by Tom Gibbons) is similarly timed to the smallest details, and the effects combine to make The Lorax a rich, fully visualized experience.

Photo by Dan Norman

Serious issues are making their way onto stages all over the Twin Cities, which is great to see. Race and gender and sexuality have all gotten explicit treatment in recent months, but how do you visually depict pollution as an urgent problem to be solved and a clean environment as something to be valued? I firmly believe that art is a perfect medium to help us tackle difficult subjects, and The Lorax is a genius way to address environmental issues. It may be considered a tale for children, but adults will be amazed at how quickly they are engrossed in The Lorax's beautifully told story. I know that I was pleasantly surprised at how much I genuinely engaged with this show. I couldn't stop smiling from the moment the theater lights dimmed, and if nothing else the incredible production value provides plenty of food for the eyes. I can't recommend The Lorax highly enough for people of all ages (and I truly mean that - adults are not getting cheated in this show). Hats (or thneeds, rather) off to Director Max Webster for a triumphant, creative adaptation that pulls the heartstrings, teaches a lesson, and puts a wide smile on your face all at the same time. For more information or to buy tickets before The Lorax closes on June 10, click on this link.