By Jean Lowerison
Dr. Seuss wrote “The Lorax” in 1971, but its topic and message couldn’t be more relevant if he’d written it yesterday.
Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor Geisel), author of 45 books for children, was also a longtime resident of La Jolla, which explains why San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre now has a 20-year tradition of Christmastime presentations of “How The Grinch Stole Christmas!”
Now the Globe presents a new Seuss musical: The Old Vic’s 2015 version of “The Lorax,” based on the book, adapted for the stage by Scottish dramatist David Greig and boasting a score by Charlie Fink. “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax” is in a dual U.S. premiere through Aug. 12 on The Old Globe’s Shiley Stage, coming here after a run at Minneapolis’ Children’s Theatre.
The story has the expected wildly inventive Seussian characters, but the message is simple: the environment needs and deserves protection from encroachment and ruination by rampant capitalist greed. Sound too serious (and timely) to be funny? Hang on, this is Dr. Seuss.
The show is a feast for the eyes, thanks to Rob Howell, doing double duty as set and costume designer. It opens in a gray area “at the far end of town where the Grickle Grass grows.” Here we’ll find the house of the “once-happy Once-ler” — a very high, thin, rectangular wood-look column, aging badly. The Once-ler lives grumpily all alone in the Lerkim at the top.
You see, years before he’d been essentially pushed out of his poverty-stricken family (who wanted to rent out his bedroom) and sent out into the world to make his own way.
When a visitor asks if he would tell the story of what happened to the Lorax, the Once-ler immediately barks “No,” but is bribed into it. But he won’t come down: he drops his Whispa-Ma-Phone, a long line with an old-fashioned ear trumpet that the listener puts to his ear.
Then the Once-ler launches into the story of a place that once was paradise, with four-legged animals like Bar-ba-loots (they look like red bears here) and birds like the Swomee Swans, even Humming-Fish in the pond.
But it was the abundant Truffula trees that fascinated the Once-ler. Tall and thin they were, with brightly colored tufts. “The touch of their tufts was much softer than silk/And they had the sweet smell of fresh butterfly milk,” he reports. And the Bar-ba-loots feasted on the delicious fruits of the Truffula trees.
Feeling the silky softness of a Truffula tuft gave the Once-ler a brilliant marketing idea. He cut down a Truffula tree or two, gathered the tufts and knitted them into a “thneed,” a sort of all-purpose thing that might be a shirt or a sock or a glove. It’s a “something-that-all-people-need,” he says.
But when he’d cut that tree down, the Lorax (a four-legged orange puppet with a bright yellow mustache, manipulated and voiced by three actors) — appeared, wanting to know why the tree had been cut down. “I speak for the trees,” says the Lorax sternly (and wonderfully voiced and sung by H. Adam Harris).
This sets up a bit of a feud, as the Once-ler brings his whole family to work in his new thneed mill. Soon there are no more Truffula trees. Fish and animals, missing their food source, leave. And so — with no more trees to protect — does the Lorax.
Is that the end of Truffula trees? And paradise? Perhaps. Unless…
Steven Epp’s Once-ler is almost likable — at least until he becomes a greedy CEO, willing to hack those trees until there’s nothing left.
The score by Charlie Fink (once-frontman of the indie-rock band Noah and the Whale) runs the gamut from political protest to Motown (with a great Supremes-like mashup) to hot jazz to electro-pop.
This show has it all: the style kids will love and a message parents will appreciate, along with terrific costumes, good songs, even a sing-along encore. Who knows, maybe it’s the start of a new tradition.
—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.