“Just START, already!” the young lady seated next to me, possibly five years old, sighed impatiently. Unfortunately she still had a ten-minute wait until 1 o’clock showtime, a lag that she and her friend – or possibly sister – filled partly by doing counting games: a hopscotch-rhythm advance by ones up to fifty, with a slight pause as each “zero” landmark was achieved, then starting over at one and climbing up the ladder again. It seemed certain she could have kept going to sixty and seventy and beyond, but games have rules, and that’s not how this game worked.
When a kid’s come all the way to a theater and wedged through a notably hyperactive crowd just to see The Cat in the Hat, any delay can be excruciating. Fortunately, when Dr. Seuss’s famously flamboyant Cat eventually showed up in the lanky form of actor John Ellingson, he did so with an emphatic splat. This production, at Northwest Children’s Theater & School, is bright and giddy and tautly wound like an old-time cartoon, an effect amplified by Rodolfo Ortega’s bouncy silent-movie-like score and Jake Newcomb’s whiz-bang sound design.
Katie Mitchell’s adaptation, produced originally by the National Theatre of Great Britain, is pretty much a three-D amplification of the book itself, which is a good thing, because most of the audience knew the words by heart, and there’s no sense in fiddling with either words or hearts. The set (by Ellingson) looks like the house in the book, the costumes (by Nancy Christy) look very much like the costumes in the book, and the characters – Harper Lea as the Boy and Gracie Jacobson as Sally, the befuddled kids home alone while their mom’s out; Jenny Bunce as a very funny and exasperated pet Fish (she does the talking; her hand puppet does the swimming); Snigdha Malladi and Hallie Bartell as Thing 1 and Thing 2, the Cat’s kittenish partners in mayhem – are the very characters from the book, doing the very things the characters in the book do. In short, there’s something pleasingly ritualistic about the whole enterprise: It is what it is, and what it is is what it’s supposed to be.
At the center of it all, appropriately, is Ellingson’s Cat, taller than tall in his towering hat, an effervescent force who knows how to play with the other characters as he plays with the audience, teasing and cajoling and all but winking out loud. The Cat in the Hat is the very personification of creative destruction, which makes him something of a fascination and hero (if not entirely admirable as a business model) to children of all ages, and it’s a good thing he has that rider vacuum thingamabob to clean up the mess before Mom gets home.
The Cat in the Hat runs a good clipped thirty-five minutes, which is so easily within this young audience’s attention span that Ellingson, still in Cat uniform, popped out immediately after to read another Dr. Seuss favorite, Green Eggs and Ham. He did so with actorly gusto, wit, and relish (or maybe it was salsa), immediately pulling the kids in, and worrying parents throughout the audience about how they were possibly going to compete, come bedtime that evening, when they read to their kids in their own much less theatrical voices. Such are the perils of taking your children to the theater.
After a while in his recitation the Cat started inviting the audience to fill in the missing words: “I do not like them …” – “HERE!” the kids would shout. “I do not like them …” “THERE!” Sometimes he’d say “Dr. …” and the kids would holler “SOOSE!,” to which the young lady next to me would reply, “SOYCE!” (She appeared to have a nodding acquaintance with the German language.)
During both of these Seussian theatricals the young patrons were perched forward, leaning intently against the pews in front of them (the seating in this long-ago church building in Northwest Portland is in long rows of pews, arranged in slightly arched wide rows). This is, in fact, a proper posture when one is in the theater – perhaps the proper posture – and while most adults have forgotten it, children seem to understand it innately: leaning forward is what you do when you’re engaged.
Northwest Children’s Theatre is performing a twofer to open its season, and after seeing The Cat in the Hat at its Saturday matinee I popped back in for the 6 o’clock performance of Show No. 2, the hour-long musical Rock the Presidents. Meant for a slightly older audience, and arriving just weeks before the presidential election, it’s a seasonally topical show with a faint scent of Hamilton wafting overhead.
NWCT has a long track record of success with musicals, among them a jazzy Alice in Wonderland; Shrek: The Musical; and the multiple Drammy-winning Mary Poppins. Though it’s smaller in scale – it has just three performers – Rock the Presidents has a nice polish to it, too. Director John Oules, with considerable aid from music director Darcy White and choreographer Kemba Shannon, keeps things quick-paced and lively, with the sort of bright-eyed sheen you might expect from American Idol or The Voice after the comic-relief acts have dropped out and the pop emoting gets down to business. It’s nonstop energy, to a recorded beat, a bit like a contemporary American Bandstand with lyrics by your cool history teacher. (The lyrics and book are actually by Dwayne Hartford, with music by Sarah Roberts.)
In what’s essentially a revue format, actor/singers Jimmie Harrod, Barbara Marie, and Isaac Frank show off good pipes and smooth pop-singer moves. They play Secret Service agents who, because of their close proximity to presidents 1 through 44, know them better than most people, and are eager to dish. And what do they dish? Well, almost all of the presidents liked animals and had pets at the White House. John Adams and Tom Jefferson liked each other, and then they didn’t, and then they did. Dick Nixon got caught. Some presidents are carved in stone in the Badlands. Events came crashing down on Herbert Hoover. Nobody much remembers who Millard Fillmore was. The presidents had wives, too. The buck stops here. On and on it goes, a bright and sassy litany of sort-of-famous names and incidents, brushing over and moving on, more like a laundry list than a biography: a fill-in-the-blanks of semi-fame.
I soon found myself wondering, to what purpose? I’m not sure the kids in the crowd took away anything substantive about the presidents at all; only some pop-music moves and a few glib sound-bite moments. And an undue emphasis on sound bites and show-biz savvy, I reflected, is part of what got us into the mess we’re in now, when a fatuous, angry, mendacity-spinning, reality-TV personality has overwhelmed a once grand old party with his mastery of the medium and slithered within an inch of the presidency. In conflating the presidency with pop-music fame, it struck me, Rock the Presidents was falling into the same trap that the actual presidential race has fallen into: glitter trumps content. One of the show’s main points – that no matter how much they might have disagreed with one another, all of the presidents wanted what was best for the country – seems in the actual world demonstrably untrue, and how do you spoon-feed that to an elementary-school audience?
Well, how do you? I confess, I’m not sure. I would hope for something more substantive, a little more probing, than what this show offers – not something that proselytizes one way or another, but something that sparks honest questions and interest, and hints at something a little deeper to the political process than rock-star glamour. That might mean (as the creators of Hamilton and the earlier musical 1776 decided) homing in on a few people, a few events, and dramatizing what made them important and still pertinent to the process of democracy. Am I asking too much of a show meant for ten-year-olds? Again, I don’t know. I’m not sure the Rock the Presidents approach is all that different substantively from the tales of cherry trees and log cabins and first Thanksgivings that earlier generations of kids were told in an attempt to instill a sense of Bowdlerized history and vague patriotism. But I do suspect the kids are capable of handling something more than this.
On the other hand, the singing’s good, the spirits are high, the quickly shifting projections by Andrés Alcalá and John Kasselman are jumpy and effective, and those Secret Service dudes move like rock stars. Maybe that’s enough.
The Cat in the Hat continues through October 23 and Rock the Presidents through October 22, both at Northwest Children’s Theatre & School. Ticket and schedule information are here (Cat) and here (Presidents).