SEUSSICAL THE MUSICAL – In Newtown, CT – for the 12.14 Foundation

By Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty

Musical Director Jeffrey Saver, Choreographed by Jennifer Paulson Lee, Set Design by Leanne Leutkemeyer, Costumes by Kristina Sneshkoff, Lighting by Herrick Goldman with Susan Nicholson, Sound Design by Simon Matthews, Production Manager D.J. Haugen, Production Stage Manager Becca Hernan, Produced by Michael Unger and Van Dean, Executive Producer Dr. Michael Baroody

PHOTOS BY (the amazing) T. Charles Erickson

USE ARROWS TO SCROLL THROUGH IMAGES – VIDEOS BELOW PHOTOS, REVIEWS BELOW VIDEOS

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Michael Unger (Director), Lynn Ahrens (Lyricist, Bookwriter), Jeffrey Saver (Music Director), Stephen Flaherty (Composer, Bookwriter)
Michael Unger (Director), Lynn Ahrens (Lyricist, Bookwriter), Jeffrey Saver (Music Director), Stephen Flaherty (Composer, Bookwriter)

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CBS NEWS THIS MORNING VISITS OUR FINAL DRESS REHEARSAL

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Sirius/XM Radio Interview by Larry Flick with Michael Unger (Director) and John Tartaglia (Cat in the Hat).

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Executive Producer – Dr. Michael Baroody, Cat in the Hat – John Tartaglia and Mayzie – Claire Alexander visit MS-NBC

(you have to view advertisement first)

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Michael Unger (Director), Lynn Ahrens (Lyricist, Bookwriter), Jeffrey Saver (Music Director), Stephen Flaherty (Composer, Bookwriter)

Here is a letter I wrote to authors, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty – which Lynn forwarded on to MTI – their licensing company. MTI published it on their blog:

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Newtown, CT Hosts Special Performance of SEUSSICAL: Director Michael Unger Shares Inspiring Stories from Rehearsal

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The following article is written by Michael Unger, the director of a special production of Ahren’s and Flaherty’s SEUSSICAL taking place in Newtown, CT to honor and support the victims of the Sandy Hook elementary school tragedy.  The production is sponsored by the 12.14 Foundation (whose mission is to build and operate a landmark performing arts center in Newtown to serve the dual purpose of memorializing and honoring those lost on December 14, 2012, and providing a venue that supports many forms of healing and positive change).  The show will be performed by the community youth and led by Broadway’s best professionals.  Michael’s article highlights the transformative and healing powers of the arts – we hope you are as inspired as we are:

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Here’s what happened in rehearsal yesterday…

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98% of the time, if you wandered into one of our rehearsals, you would have no idea that this community had suffered the unimaginable horrors of December 14th. And that is a great thing. These are smiling, eager, dedicated, excited kids – and there are 82 of them from the ages of 5 to 18. With a resilience that restores faith in humanity, these kids (and their community) are moving forward.

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Every once in a while, however, I would speak with one of them about connecting to their character in a more natural way and I would learn that, say, one was the baby sitter of a child who was lost, or a tutor, or a neighbor. We also have about 20 kids in the young ensemble (and one heroic teacher) who were in Sandy Hook Elementary that day. One of the little girls in the show came up to me and told me that a video game that some of the boys were playing scared her because it made her think of what happened. We, of course, put a stop to those types of games.

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Something amazing happened in rehearsal yesterday which I wanted to share with you. I had often spoken of how perfect “Seussical” was for this place, in this time, with these people. The story of hope, loyalty, staying true to yourself and protecting what is important to you could not have been written more aptly than for this community, even though it premiered in 2000. Yesterday, it was as if Ahrens and Flaherty wrote “Seussical” for us.

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We were working on the section of the show where Horton, who had promised to protect the Whos on their drifting dust speck, lost them. The love of his life (although he doesn’t know it yet), Gertrude, who spent seven weeks searching for the lost clover on which Horton placed the Whos, returns it to him, safe and sound. Horton then makes his second promise to protect them – one that, this time, he will never, ever break. He is given a rare, second chance.

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The high school performer who was playing Horton during this rehearsal (we are double-cast so there are two) was delivering the material as if he were reading it rather than writing it – he was not LIVING in the role and, therefore, transported neither him nor us. I told him that his promise to this dust speck, this time, had to be an ABSOLUTE commitment – that he had failed them before but that he had now learned his lesson. He was given a rare second chance.

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I went on to tell the cast that I picked Seussical for very specific reasons, mentioned above. I told them that even though I knew it was the perfect show for this summer, I was amazed every day, of just how perfect. This musical is about hope and joy – and even though horrible things happen in the world, hope and joy are a necessary part of moving on.

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I explained that if you don’t connect to your character in a natural way, you sometimes have to use your own history as your character’s history. I told this particular actor that the dust speck and the Whos ARE Newtown. The world failed to protect Newtown one day and it is our duty to those who were lost and should be our promise to all those around us that we will never let Newtown down again. I went on to say that this show is one step in that process of promise and healing – that if we are truthful to the show, it speaks to the exact kind of healing and protection Newtown (and the world) needs now and forever. I said to him, “Protect that dust speck as if you were protecting your home town. Because it is and you are.”

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By this time, there were lots of tears and hugs spreading around the room. Yes, filled with painful memories, but also filled with a profoundly deep understanding of the power of the performing arts in general and the power of “Seussical” in specific. Theodor Geisel (A.K.A. Dr. Seuss) wrote profound things in a way that even the tiniest minds could understand them. We had all come to a new understanding of what we were doing here in those minutes.

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I said, “Let’s try it again.” This time, the actor playing Horton could barely make it through his promise to the Whos without bursting into tears. In fact, his struggle NOT to break down was as beautiful as his ability to touch the true emotion of the scene. It was one of the purest acting moments I’ve ever seen. He was distraught – not acting distraught – this young man was literally crying out to save everyone in Newtown, even those who are no longer here. Then something else happened that was very special. The actors playing the nasty (well, maybe not exactly nasty, more paranoid of people different from them) Wickersham Monkeys and Bird Girls begin to ridicule Horton for being such a fool on such a foolish mission. They steal his dust speck, intending to boil it in Beezlenut oil. These young performers, who moments earlier had been holding each other in tears, were struggling to be mean to the empathic, gentle, caring, loyal character who represented all of them. Yet they had to overcome that intuitive tenderness to play mean. Watching that struggle in each of them was incredible because they had to work so hard to convince themselves to be nasty – and when Horton finally has the strength and determination to make the HUGE trumpeting elephant noise that transforms their characters, the relief they had in being allowed to let the facade of their characters down was second only to the understanding of the healing that was going on – for all of us. How art and life and life and art can intertwine to open us all to the deeper questions. We all had a new understanding of how we must fight to protect each other – and that we must embrace what makes us different so that fear does not divide us.

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As we went into a break one of the actresses playing a Bird Girl collapsed in tears in my arms. That started me going as well – and I told her that we cannot undo what was done. We cannot turn back time. But we can show the world that this community can, and WILL, go on to let their joy stamp out the sorrow. And, just as important, each one of them is helping heal their colleagues and families and friends – not only by doing this funny, heartfelt, hopeful, joyous show, but also by allowing themselves to lose themselves in it – to let “Seussical” be THEIR story, if even for only 75 minutes, four times next week.

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I then told them that when authors Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty come to see the show, they will not see the fanciest, most polished “Seussical” with the most sophisticated sets and upscale production values (all things, by the way, which they wisely caution you away from). But I would bet that they will see their show have an impact they could never have imagined when they were writing it. And if they did imagine it, they will see tangible proof of their joyous and disproportionately profound efforts – of how theatre can not only transport a room full of hundreds of spectators, but how it can also transform the performers who learned that day NOT what it means to ACT on stage – but what it means to BE on stage.

EXCERPTS FROM MUSIC THEATRE INTERNATIONAL’s BLOG – by Peter Filichia

There have been thousands upon thousands of T-shirts made for hundreds upon hundreds of productions of SEUSSICAL. But each one for sale in this lobby has a unique logo in its upper right hand corner.

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12.14 Foundation.

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12.14 as in December 14, 2012 – a day that Newtown, Connecticut will never forget, much as it would like to. It was the Friday when Adam Lanza walked into the Sandy Hook Elementary School and methodically murdered 26 people, most of whom were schoolchildren.

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Now, at Newtown High School, 1.3 miles away from the tragic site, director Michael Unger, producer Van Dean and 12.14 Foundation founder and president Dr. Michael Baroody have collaborated to produce SEUSSICAL. 84 Kids from the Newtown area join Tony-nominated guest artist: John Tartaglia, who plays The Cat in the Hat.

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A bit after two p.m., Unger takes to the stage and says that the show will be delayed because Tartaglia is stuck in traffic. (I can vouch that there was plenty in getting to this Fairfield County town.) He estimates a 15-20 minute delay, which may well be a blessing in disguise, for it will allow those in attendance to interact and talk. Some…, of course will never be able to get over what happened; nevertheless, being with other people helps. When [Dr. Baroody] takes to the stage to announce the show’s start he says, “Take a deep breath and forget everything else in your life, and just be here – for, and with, these kids.”

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That isn’t easy, however, once dozens of little elementary-school age children in a rainbow of brightly colored T-shirts storm the stage. Already I’m in tears looking at these survivors, the fortunate Sandy Hook Elementary School students who were in the right place at the wrong time.

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There are many teens on stage, too. Five rugged boys are there to play The Wickersham Brothers while six young ladies portray The Bird Girls. The town has really come together for this one. Theatergoers coo in delight when they find that teen Juliana Koziol’s Sour Kangaroo costume allows for a pouch from which a little girl – a Sweet Kangaroo? — occasionally pops her head. Young and “old” learn to work as a unit.

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How quiet the audience is when Horton the Elephant discovers the minuscule Whos; yes, there’s more in life than meets the eye, and there’s a great deal more to life if we’d only care to look. Many enjoy seeing the kids stretch out light blue sheets to represent McElligott’s Pool, and giggle when other kids emerge from behind and display boogie boards. How they coo with glee when a real dog trots on stage! The program reveals that the cute puppy is named Cosmo Unger. Yeah, it’s never too early for kids to learn another truism about show business: someone can get cast just by knowing the director.

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The Circus McGurkus allows the kids to wear an extra set of colorful costumes. The song is so winning that the audience is moved to clap in unison. Once more, Newtown is coming together.

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Tartaglia, as you’d expect, is an excellent emcee. He makes solid eye-contact with the audience, centering his attentions on one theatergoer for a moment, but never too long before switching to another to make that person feel equally welcome.

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Remember, too, that he has a tougher assignment than any other performer who’s played The Cat: he must get both the kids on stage and the audience to get through lyrics that aren’t easy for Newtown. Some parents here will relate to “How Lucky You Are” while others won’t be able to at all. SEUSSICAL acknowledges that life does contain some elements that we all must fear – but that facing one’s fears and overcoming them is a big part of life, too.

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And yet, so is having fun, which Tartaglia is determined to deliver to the crowd. He skillfully adopts a Satchmo voice for one song and an equally effective ethnic accent when playing cabana boy to Mayzie in Palm Beach. SEUSSICAL’s authors Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who made the 80-mile trip here, may well be thinking that the 2000 Broadway fate of their show, some of which was due to a wan Cat, might have been very different if Tartaglia had had the chance to do it.

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SEUSSICAL is a good fit for Newtown’s residents. So are many of the messages – as characters learn that they are not “Alone in the Universe” and that “Anything Is Possible.” During “Solla Sollew,” Unger has the little kids holding hands, which always makes for a nice stage picture; here, however, it also comes across as a statement of solidarity.

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The last half of the show centers on how Horton, who never saw parenthood in his future, becomes a nurturing father. He makes sacrifices to ensure that the egg on which he’s sitting will have every chance to live. Kyle Watkins, who plays the role, expertly shows us the precise moment when he makes the commitment to parenthood. How fitting that the child turns out to be “an elephant bird” – stressing that the real father is the one who nurtures, and not necessarily the biological one.

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I’m surprised that Watkins – along with Brianna Bauch (Gertrude), Kirsten Liniger (Mayzie) and JoJo (Jane Shearin) — don’t have bios nestling next to Tartaglia’s in the program, given their [seemingly] professional standing. From their performances, I can assume that Watkins came directly from NEWSIES, Bauch and Liniger were part of BRING IT ON and Shearin hailed from ANNIE. On the other hand, these might well be kids that Unger has come to know from casting and directing his children’s chorus each year for 15 consecutive seasons of A Christmas Carol at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. He’s brought up many kids through the ranks, and these four may well be the cream of the substantial crop that he’s shepherded.

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As if directing kids isn’t hard enough, Unger has made his assignment all the more difficult because he’s double-cast most of the roles. Doing double the work had to be stressful, but Unger obviously felt the extra effort was worth it to give more kids a chance.

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Certainly this cast has paid off. After the show and the long standing ovation, l go to find Unger so I can ask about the four pros, but first run into Lynn Ahrens. “I couldn’t stop crying throughout the whole show,” she says.

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“Neither could I, Lynn,” I say. “Neither could I.”

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Then I let out a different cry – a sound of surprise – when Unger tells me that the four performers I so greatly admired are neither from Broadway nor the McCarter; they have not a shred of professional experience but are simply Newtown kids. While they are obviously immensely talented, I’m sure they became exemplary because Unger taught them to think about what each syllable means. These kids weren’t parroting what they’d learned by rote, but felt each meaning. What Bauch did with the word “façade” alone made me laugh out loud. Any agent who doesn’t check out these extraordinary talents is either crazy or lazy.

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The next question I have is tougher to pose. I ask Baroody, “How many of the [44 kids in the young ensemble] were at the Sandy Hook Elementary School on that horrible day?” He [answers], “Twenty.”

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I get a chill, for that’s the precise number of children who were murdered in the massacre. To think that there could have been as many as twice the number of Newtown children on that stage.  Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that SEUSSICAL, with is message of “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” was the perfect show to help a grieving community.

THE NEWTOWN PATCH

Not even torrential rains could dampen the spirits of the audience that packed Newtown High School’s auditorium for opening night of the 1214 Foundation’s production of Seussical. Michael Baroody, MD, the founder and president of the foundation, thanked everyone who came out to support the 84 young performers involved onstage and the 20 behind the scenes. He spoke of the importance of the young performers having the opportunity to interact with the audience (and each other) as a way of healing and how the adults involved encouraged them to have higher expectations for themselves in order to achieve excellence. Throughout the rehearsal process, each and every member of the two casts worked hard with commitment and dedication to bring this production to the stage. The mission of the 1214 Foundation is to build a landmark Performing Arts Centre in Newtown that will serve as a remembrance with a focus on improving the lives of young people exposed to tragic events.

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Lynn Aherns and Stephen Flaherty’s Seussical was chosen by Director/Producer Michael Unger because it is joyous and tender, but also because of “its universal themes of loyalty, protection, longing, courage and perseverance.” Ms. Aherns and Mr. Flaherty actually did some re-writing for this production of Seussical – Theatre for Young Audiences, making it a custom-tailored, Newtown version of Seussical. The lyricist also sent a message in rhyme to the cast and crew that appeared in the program. Mr. Unger goes on to liken the speck of dust in need of protection that Dr. Seuss’ writes about in Horton Hears a Who to the town of Newtown. This group of young actors and the professionals who worked with them are “fiercely protecting it in this musical with tender, yet strong hands.”

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There are two complete casts; the Lorax cast got to do opening night (the show I attended) and the Saturday matinee, while the Sneetch cast will do the Saturday night show and the Sunday matinee. Only the dance ensemble, Max the Dog (played by Cosmo Unger) the large youth ensemble and the star of the show, John Tartaglia, get to be in all the seventy-five minute performances. Given the level of talent that was only display in the Lorax cast, I can only imagine that the alternate cast will be just as good.

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Of course the tiniest members of the cast, who were blessed with two “child supervisors,” were adorable whenever they were onstage. It seemed to me that a concerted attempt had been made to include them as much as possible and their staging was perfect. Many of them had at least one costume change and they had several entrances through the house, much to the delight of the audience. The musical numbers ranged from the frantic “Monkey Around” when the Wickersham brothers chased Horton throughout the house to the wistful “Solla Sollew” by the full company.

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Youtube promotional video

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Very talented teens played most of the lead roles and each move that they made was polished by their directors. Preteen Jane Shearin was perfectly cast and simply adorable as Jojo. There is so much talent in this little lady. Kyle Watkins played a convincing Horton the Elephant and had an outstanding singing voice. Brianna Bauch was the perfectly perky Gertrude McFuzz and could easily move on to the role of Glinda in Wicked. Kirsten Liniger was another fine singer as the lazy Mayzie La Bird. Juliana Koziol knocked out the vocals of the Sour Kangaroo and wore an amazing costume/hairstyle. Kieran Minor and Marina Kolitsas were terrific as the Mayor of Whoville and his wife.

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Some roles were super sized to accommodate more actors. The Wickersham brothers were five in number and all impressive. The Bird Girls were six young ladies dressed in bright colors and feathers and sang together beautifully. The lovely dance ensemble, choreographed by Jennifer Paulson Lee, was a nice touch.

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As the only Equity Member, everyone knew that John Tartaglia would be amazing; some audience members may have purchased a ticket simply to see him in the role of the Cat in the Hat. The students in the cast brought their performances up to his level…not an easy task, because Mr. Tartaglia is supremely talented and has extensive theatrical and puppeteering credits to his name. He was a charming, mischievous Cat, but he also played many other characters throughout the show. One was funnier than the next, and included The Grinch, a judge (for which he voiced a puppet of Yertle the Turtle,) and an auctioneer that interacted with the audience. By far my favorite was when he played Jose, a pool boy to the vacationing Mayzie. This generous actor worked so well with the slew of young actors with whom he shared the stage for the last five weeks and brought his star power along.

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Musical Director Jeffrey Saver conducted the large orchestra of volunteer musicians that sat onstage at the back of the set. They sounded as a professional orchestra should and from that position allowed the actors to hear every note. The amazingly Seuss-like set designed by Leanne Luetkemeyer, a children’s book artist, among other things, was whimsical and fun. It was incredibly lit by Herrick Goldman, making the NHS stage look like it has probably never looked before. Newtown High School’s Choral Director Jane Matson served as Associate Director.

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I truly did not want the show to end. There was tons of supportive cheering at the curtain call so I suspect that others felt the same way. There are three performances left; if you can get a ticket, I encourage you to come out and support this great cause while enjoying an excellent production of a great show for young and old enough to have seen it before. The production team of Broadway professionals deserve a big thank you for all the hard work that went into making the summer so wonderful for all the young performers involved and their families.