Berkshire Theatre Group production ‘Seussical' brings Whoville to Colonial
Learn some more about Dr. Seuss
PITTSFIELD -- The sets are big, the lights are bright, and cast members literally jump, dive and flip through the air.
"It's like an action movie, only it's a musical," said Travis Daly, director of "Seussical," the ninth annual community production of Berkshire Theatre Group.
The show features more than 100 Berkshire County child and adult actors, as well as young behind-the-scenes talent from across the country, all working together to bring the iconic words and characters of Dr. Seuss to life from the page to the stage of the Colonial Theatre.
This week, the company has been making its final push to prepare for Thursday's opening night. The show will continue to run through Aug. 17.
This year's production not only features the main musical, but it also will include a mini-cabaret at intermission, featuring never-performed numbers and songs from other versions of "Seussical" penned by lyric and book writer, Lynn Ahrens.
"The Broadway version was a flop. It had too many plot threads and was too long," Daly said. A trimmed version of the show enjoyed a better-received revival off-Broadway, and has had success through other tours and community productions, like that of Berkshire Theatre Group.
Daly and musical director Mark Gionfriddo, with Ahrens' blessing, will showcase the extra songs -- still good numbers -- in a more intimate setting.
"The music is beautiful and reflective of the characters' personalities," Daly said, noting 90 percent of the show is performed in song.
This production weaves together themes of friendship, love, family, community and acceptance.
"It's a show for everybody, reminding them that a person's a person, no matter how small and that everything is possible," Daly said, quoting Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hears a Who."
His vision, which has been executed through the talent and work by various departments of the company, has been to not simply produce a moving cartoon.
"If we had people moving around in mascot costumes, you'd lose the emotion. We want people to find those moments where they can see themselves, and relate to what's happening," Daly said.
Costume designer Keating Helfrich, and her 16-member department have incorporated materials like craft foam, to achieve the lines and primary colors reminiscent of Dr. Seuss books.
"It's a material I don't use often, but it really makes things pop in this show," she said.
Pom-pom fringe and bright and bold fabrics also have been key.
In creating probably the most iconic character of the show, The Cat in the Hat, she said it was the costume shop's job to allow the actor (Cody Lee Miller) to shine through versus covering him up with something like a cat mask.
"We wanted to be able to build on the human characteristics," she said.
For another classic character, Horton the elephant, they created a coverall-style jumpsuit draped and painted with folds, and added a tail and a hat with big ears.
"It's still an elephant, but you get to see the human too," Helfrich said.
In the neighboring shop, set designer Gennie Neuman-Lambert has worked with painters, builders and props makers to create a Seuss-inspired backdrop reminiscent of a big top circus or an old Las Vegas-style vaudevillian cabaret.
"We're sort of stepping back to a time when theater was drops and props and lighting," she said.
"We're constantly making things that aren't real," said Mackenzie Cunningham, a props intern from Colorado State University.
On Tuesday, she spent her afternoon creating the Pill Berry Bush from the Gertrude McFuzz storyline. It stands in a bright lavender pot with blossoms of blues and whites with glittering spirals of foliage protruding in carefree shoots.
Neuman-Lambert said the joy of working on "Seussical" has been giving the cast and crew permission to fully liberate their imaginations.
"What makes a good show is when it's not just one person's idea. Community shows like this have a lot of heart, and that's a really powerful thing," she said.
For light designer Greg Solomon, that heart and energy has been both a joy and
"We have more characters flying this year, and the audience is used a lot, so it's a lot more work with the follow spots," he said. "It's more of a real estate challenge, making sure the actors don't fly or run into the lights."
Solomon said he's worked to create suggestive mood lighting to transport audience members to different settings, be it the filtered lighting of a jungle or the brightness and warmth of Whoville.
"I like to look at light like it's another character in the show," he said.
As cast members, Caroline Fairweather, 15, a rising junior at Taconic High School, and Cody Lee Miller, 22, of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, have been working to emulate the dynamic spirits of their respective characters.
Miller has to embody the endearing and mischievous Cat in the Hat, while Fairweather - who says she typically plays "the girl-next-door" kind of character - is playing the skeptical Sour Kangaroo, the musical's main villain.
Throughout the show, they're surrounded by a supporting cast of Whos and Wickershams, fish and Bird Girls, among many other strange and wonderful characters.
Miller said the nice thing about doing a community production versus a professional show is having the chance "to sort of get back to your roots here in the Berkshires. The cast is literally filled, from the smallest of the small to the tallest of the tall."
Fairweather said being in the chorus of a community production as a child inspired and encouraged her to pursue acting in school, professional and summer productions like this.
"It's great to be in a place where everyone loves the same thing as you," she said.
Both she and Miller have noticed "Seussical" kindling the same spark that they once felt among current younger cast members.
"Coming back here and watching them grow with it is a really great thing to see," Miller said.
Fairweather said that the true spirit of the show and the community production can be found in the opening number, "Oh the Thinks You Can Think," in which the entire cast is featured on stage.
"There are lessons to be learned," she said. "When you see all the crazy things on stage, it makes you think it's OK to be whoever you are."
If you go ...
What: "Seussical," Berkshire Theatre Group's ninth annual community
children's theater production, with an intermission cabaret
When: Through Aug. 17
Where: Colonial Theatre, 111 South St., Pittsfield
Info: For showtimes and more details, visit http://berkshiretheatregroup.org or call (413) 997-4444.
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