Horton Hears A What?

Photos in order: Nate Bloom as Horton, Ensemble, Sophia Lawder as Gertrude McFuzz, Maren Westgard as Jojo, Quinn Lofthouse as Mayzie La Bird, Bella DiMartino and Lia Koski as Madam and Ms. Mayor, and Westgard and Abby Tubis as Jojo and the Cat in the Hat. 

If an elephant can hear even the smallest of voices — voices so quiet they’re nearly not there — is it more likely that he’s schizophrenic, or deeply empathic? 

What about a boy, so tiny he is suspended on a speck of dust, whose barbaric yawp comes out as a sure but squeaky peep?

A bird who isn’t happy with her stubby tail feathers until it’s nearly too late?

Or a whole civilization that risks being wiped out by natural elements, wild animals, and the occasionally misanthropic kangaroo?

Such are the questions raised in Audubon Arts’ run of Seussical The Musical this week. The culmination of Neighborhood Music School’s Audubon Arts six-week summer program, the musical runs Tuesday through Thursday at Hamden Hall. Tickets are $15. 

Seussical — which is back at Audubon Arts after performances in 2007 — picks up where Dr. Seuss left off with one of his beloved characters: Horton the elephant, whose sizable, leathery ears are outdone by the largess of his heart. True to his belief that “a person’s a person, no matter how small,” Horton listens carefully when he hears cries for help in the Jungle of Nool, swaying lightly on the breeze. 

He turns out to be right: the minuscule people of Whoville are calling out for assistance, before their whole way of life is wiped out. There’s just one problem: they’re so tiny they live within a speck of dust, and only Horton can hear them. 

There ensue a string of plot twists: animals, then people, who won’t leave sweet old Horton alone. A war afoot in Whoville over buttered toast, and how it is eaten in different regions. A young Who on his trying journey to self-acceptance, and an improbable love, plagued by missteps and missed connections. It’s an exuberant, sentimental mash-up of Dr. Seuss that doesn’t seem too farfetched, after all. 

That is, after you remove the mustard yellow tights, bright Converses, red sequins and occasional reference to green eggs and ham. Under the direction of Stephen Dest, cast members step enthusiastically into their roles, clinging most closely to the real-world context that exists between each line. As each musical number unfolds — and they are constant, with back-to-back choreography, a bright set of painted ladders, and pumping music from a live pit — students aim to connect with each other and the audience, and rarely do they miss a beat.       

Not that the show is without missteps. There is nothing particularly avant-garde about this rendition — women step into male roles, only to not make them inventively un-male. The cast is blindingly white, and characters sometime seem so close to gender stereotype that it’s uncomfortable. Take the the wily, attractive Mayzie La Bird (Quinn Lofthouse), who leaves Horton to care for her egg and heads south for Palm Beach and fruity drinks on the sand. Some of the script’s dark humor is lost on the cast, with students genuinely belting “tell yourself/how lucky you are!” as the world around them crumbles.  

But the play ultimately rings true to helping the little guy, whoever that little guy may be. As Horton, Nate Bloom endears himself to us immediately, opening his heart — and his pipes — to all who wish to find a place in it. By “Alone in the Universe,” we have fallen in love with him, a soft soul who is as vulnerable as he is fiercely faithful. Jojo (Maren Westgard) and The Cat in The Hat (Abby Tubis) carry the plot with a belief in the power of expansive imagination and new narrative. In her quest to grow long tail feathers — and then lose them — Gertrude McFuzz teaches us about self-acceptance. It’s these moments that spin the show into a wildly fun reflection on the things one can think up.   

Seussical is what we do, without even realizing it,” said Dest during Tuesday night’s intermission. “This is kind of the poster child for Audubon Arts, and the power of thinking outside the box.”