by Lynn on December 20, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

 At the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto, Ont.

 Written by Dr. Seuss

Adapted by David Greig

Music and lyrics by Charlie Fink

Directed by Max Webster

Choreography by Drew McOnie

Designed by Rob Howell

Lighting by Jon Clark

Sound by Tom Gibbons
Puppetry designer, Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell

Puppetry direction by Finn Caldwell for Gyre & Gimble

Staring: Michael Ajao

Laura Caldow

Simon Paisley Day

David Ricardo-Pearce

Ben Thompson

A lively, inventive, raucous show about a rather important subject handled with thoughtful care and conviction. 

 The Story. A group of innocent young people, playing in the woods, stumble upon a monument with the word “Unless” on it. They are disturbed by an irascible person named The Once-ler (Simon Paisley Day) who lives high above them, it seems in a tree, alone. He can’t tell them what “Unless” means because he doesn’t know.  But he tells them the story that led him to this lonely existence.

He was a child of the Once-ler Family. He did his best to work and bring money into the family but didn’t really shape up. The family threw him out to rent his room for more money than the Once-ler made.

The Once-ler was determined to show his family he could amount to something. He somehow created a Thneed, a knitted grarment that had so many uses I can’t list them all here, so I won’t. The Once-ler sold the Thneed instantly! To make more Thneeds, the Once-ler needed the soft tufts at the top of the Truffula Tree for more knitting, so he cut one down. This aroused the Lorax, a furry creature who “ Speaks for the Trees” and tries to protect them. What followed was a tug of war between the Lorax, who was desperate to protect the trees, and the Once-ler who only saw how much money he could make by producing Thneeds which required cutting down more trees.

The Production.  Director Max Webster is mindful that we live in a time of whizzing, colourful distraction. Our senses are bombarded with sound, light, colour and dazzle. So his production never lags in pace or the “wow!” factor. Rob Howell’s sets and costumes are an explosion of vibrant neon. The Once-ler favours emerald green skinny pants and accessories that also match his green hair. The Lorax is a pear-shaped fluff-ball puppet of orange fur/hair. He is manipulated by three puppeteers: David Ricardo-Pearce gives the Lorax his distinctive voice complete with moral indignation; Ricardo-Pearce manipulates the head and one arm; Laura Caldow manipulates the other arm and projects the Lorax’s pained feelings with her own face, creased in anguish sometimes. Both Ricardo-Pearce and Caldow look directly at the Lorax as they manipulate it. That then focuses the audience’s attention onto the Lorax and not the puppeteers, even though it’s so tempting to watch the mastery of the puppeteers. Ben Thompson works the Lorax’s feet by bending over and working the feet with his hands. I got a sore back watching him scurry offstage, bent over, moving the Lorax along.   The Truffula Trees are multi-coloured and often float in mid-air.

Simon Paisley Day plays the Once-ler with total, serious conviction. This wonderful actor has played comedy, drama, Shakespeare– and now he’s playing a Dr. Seuss character with the same commitment as ever. And he can sing too. It’s because of Simon Paisley Day’s acting that we don’t completely discount the Once-ler as a greedy-guts heartless businessman who has fallen in love with power and money. He is convincing when he says he must provide for his family and his businesses and all the people who depend on him. Too true. But one thinks: ‘Ya don’t have to be such a creep about it!”

The music and the singing are stirring. Almost everyone is microphoned. It all seems like a typical glitzy, blaring musical. But then there are quiet moments of wonderful invention. With all the Once-ler’s expanding business comes pollution of the air and water. A sad grey thin gauzy swath of material is slowly drawn up from the top of building’s smokestack and into the air like a floating cloud, because that’s what it is—a cloud of pollution. A much larger grey sheet is floated by characters who hold the corners, creating a haze of more pollution and smog along the ground. A blue-slatted structure represents the polluted water in which sick fish swim. The audience gets its senses tingly and its imagination engaged. The puppets of birds on the ends of poles that fly over the stage and some of the audience, are cleverly constructed. The other puppets of the animals are unique.  Love that.

 Comment.  Dr. Seuss was skewering big, irresponsible business, its greed and the resultant damage to the environment in his 1972 classic “The Lorax.” Thinking as a purist, the production of The Lorax seems like an overblown way of dealing with such an important subject as the environment. But most of the time I’m not a purist. This is a joyful musical that is so accomplished and exuberant in its story-telling, production and  music-making, that’s fine with me.

David Mirvish presents The Old Vic, Celia Atkin/Tobias Round and Tulchin Bartner Productions.

 Opened: Dec. 17, 2017.

Closes: Jan. 21, 2018.

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes. Approx.

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