There once was "The Velveteen Rabbit," and for 17 years, Tempe’s Childsplay theater company offered it as a splendid holiday production. But as "Rabbit" taught audiences every winter at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts, even good things don’t last forever.
This year, the nationally renowned theater troupe for young audiences is replacing its traditional holiday show with a snazzier, larger-scale production of a different kind of show — one with brand-name recognition: "Seussical," a musical based on the books of Dr. Seuss. The show opens Sunday. "We figured it had probably run its course," Steve Martin, Childsplay’s managing director, says of "Rabbit."
Though still a profitable undertaking for the company, ticket sales for "Rabbit" had leveled off, and booking student groups — a bread-and-butter audience — was an increasing challenge. ("When you’re trying to appeal to teachers who’ve seen it over and over," Martin says, "it’s harder to sell.")
Martin and company also wanted to explore other holiday options before debuting at the Tempe Center for Performing Arts, which is slated to open in early 2007.
So far, "Seussical" has proved wildly successful. It sold out to school groups more than a month in advance, and box-office sales have been brisk.
Yet the production comes with considerable baggage. Five years ago, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty opened their "Seussical: The Musical" on Broadway to lukewarm response — it ran for just 198 performances — and a critical drubbing for being too long, too dark, too derivative and, ultimately, not compelling enough.
A national tour — with several post-Broadway changes and featuring Cathy Rigby as the narrating Cat in the Hat — came to Gammage Auditorium in 2003 and was met with a similarly tepid response.
But the version being produced by Childsplay has been heavily trimmed (it now clocks in at 80 minutes) and focuses on the story of Horton the elephant and his interactions with the miniature people of the planet Who.
(The Cat in the Hat is still there, and in Scottsdale he’ll be played by longtime Childsplay favorite Jon Gentry.)
Staging "Seussical" has been a huge undertaking for Childsplay, which uses 13 actors and five musicians to bring Seuss’ world to life — and to music.
"We’re in new territory," says director Dwayne Hartford. "I think people are going to be happy with the show. It’s all about the power and the wonder of imagination."
Oh, and "Velveteen Rabbit" fans need not worry: Childsplay is considering bringing the show back in some sort of rotating holiday repertory in upcoming years.