Everybody loves Dr. Seuss, right?
Red fish, blue fish . . . green eggs and ham . . . Sneetches and Horton the Elephant and the doeeyed little moppets of Whoville — what’s not to like?
Two years ago, theater critics had an easy answer to that question when they lambasted ‘‘Seussical The Musical’’ and hastened its closure after a dismal six-month run and a $10.5 million loss for producers. Fortunately for Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, he was dead long before the musical based on his children’s books was booted off Broadway.
But, as the Cat in the Hat once said, ‘‘Look at me, look at me, look at me now! It is fun to have fun but you have to know how.’’
Cathy Rigby couldn’t agree more. Having joined the New York show’s cast just before it closed, she knows as much as anyone how it feels to be at the bottom of the heap. And now, thanks to a revamped traveling show that has turned ‘‘Seussical’’ into a sensation, she also is getting a taste of life as top cat.
‘‘We decided to remount the show because we knew it had great potential,’’ says Rigby, a mother of four who with her business-partner husband calls Southern California home base. ‘‘It was a leap of faith, and obviously it has paid off.
"People just love it.’’
But what is it with the two-time Olympic gymnast and her penchant for kiddie roles? She was Dorothy in ‘‘The Wizard of Oz,’’ then Peter Pan for years, and now she’s the Cat in the Hat. C’mon, Rigby must be — what? — 40 by now?
She’s 50, actually. And no, she’s not trying to hold onto her youth by playing ageless characters.
‘‘When I was doing ‘Peter Pan,’ I did have a child say to me, ‘I like how you fly, but when you get up close I see you have a lot of wrinkles,’ ’’ Rigby says, laughing. ‘‘I wouldn’t change the age I am or the adventures I’ve had. I’m glad I can still play these roles and want to do them as long as I’m believable.’’
Besides, she says, there is quite a difference between the two parts. While flitting around stage hooked up to a guy wire for ‘‘Peter Pan’’ was physically trying, ‘‘Seussical’’ is more about ‘‘mental gymnastics.’’
"Playing the Cat has really helped me grow as an actor," Rigby says. "I have learned to trust the stillness and the silence, to ad-lib, to trust my instincts.’’
She says ‘‘Seussical’’ is a lot like the books it is based on — thoroughly enjoyable for children but appealing to adults on a different level.
Seuss was revolutionary in his approach to writing children’s books, many of which slipped in social commentary that grabbed the attention of the grown-ups reading the bedtime stories but sailed over the heads of their young charges, who just liked the nonsensical words and wild illustrations.
Rigby remembers reading Seuss’s books to her own children, the oldest of whom is now 27, and revels in their timelessness; now a grandmother of one, she is sure her granddaughter will enjoy the stories as much as the past few generations of children have.
‘‘I met (Theodor’s widow) Audrey Geisel a while back, and she is one of the most amazing, beautiful women,’’ Rigby says. ‘‘She told me that at one point, after (Geisel) had gone from publisher to publisher and had gotten turned down by all of them, he was ready to burn his stories. But finally he connected with a willing publisher, through a mutual friend. He wasn’t going to change those stories, he didn’t write for anyone else.’’
He also didn’t talk down to children. Childless himself, Geisel was nonetheless able to connect with kids thanks to the respect he had for their intellect as well as their desire for fantasy and fun. ‘‘Seussical’’ is an extension of that brand of humor, and slips in a message as well.
As the narrator, Rigby interacts with the audience as she tells the tale of disruption in the Jungle of Nool and the efforts of the Cat in the Hat, Horton and other Seuss characters to restore harmony in their world.
‘‘It’s a very intimate show, even when we play in a big theater,’’ Rigby says. ‘‘You never know for sure what is going to happen, since the audience is really involved."
‘‘Seussical The Musical’’
Where: Gammage Auditorium, Mill Avenue and Apache Boulevard, Tempe
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $22 to $60
Information: (480) 965-3434 or www.asugammage.com