SALT LAKE CITY — There is something incredible about the light in a child’s eyes as they really get into something just for them. I loved seeing this moment for my son at SLAC’s The Cat in the Hat, a theatre for young audiences show in which the classic book comes to life in a enjoyable way. The final product is an hour that’s “lots of fun that is funny.”
The evening started with a little preshow by the U of U Youth Theatre that had four young people help the audience learn about Dr. Seuss. The kids were rhyming, dancing, and the creating great visual images. The fun little dances and songs allowed the children in the audience to start getting involved, which is helpful when the Cat is looking for a good rhyme later on and the kids were able to help him out.
If you’ve ever read the book of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, then you know the whole spoken script of this stage version. The book was expanded by the National Theatre of Great Britain to about a 45-minute production by helping audience members envision moments between the dialogue, such as the kids coming in from the rain, the fish dreaming about being a whale, and Thing 1 and Thing 2 completely taking apart the house.
But you don’t need much to start imagining Dr. Seuss’ iconic world as you immediately see the technical detail that creates literary and stage magic one. The costumes designed by Brenda Van der Wiel are a perfect recreation of Dr. Seuss’s memorable illustrations, right down to Sally’s enormous red bow and the pen squiggles on the children’s cloths. The illustrations were also brought to life by the set design by Keven Myhre. The basically blue set was beset with the imagery of rainy afternoon. The set mobile pieces of the set (e.g., doors, tables, and chairs) move fluidly around to create changes in perspective, or quick moves from one room to another as the chaos of the story really gets going.
The props, created by the Seattle Children’s Theatre, also helped recreate the most unique moments of the book’s imagery. The building of the Cat’s balancing game was memorable in both its construction as literally every balancing book, cake, and rake were added to make every impossible angle and tilt from the book a fantastic actuality. The integral sound design by Josh Martin deepened the experience as each boing, horn yawn, and jazz scale magnified the characters in a beautiful dance across the stage.
The truly imaginative product of the show was the actors’ devotion to the visualization of the book. It was laudable their ability to make mostly flat characters with little dialogue so engrossing. There is not an expectation from theatre for young audiences to create deep characters, but this show proved to me that complete devotion a strong characterization and actions can make it top-quality theatre by all standards. Boy and Sally, portrayed by Luke Monday and Elena Dern, were very fun with their full tilt runs as they tried to chase the Cat’s antics.
Thing 1 and Thing 2, played by Connor Norton and Jenessa Bowen, ran up the walls and used their unique shrieks and squeals to enliven their complete destruction of the home. These actors used extreme focus and energy to take their scarce lines often limited to the repetitive interjection, “Said the Cat,” and still make them integral parts of story by helping the audience use their imagination. Jaten McGriff impressed as the puppet-actor of Fish. He never let his fish bowl or teapot inhibit his presence in the action or what he was capable of. McGriff emphasized the moments when in some intense slow motion tumbles left him flying across the room and bouncing off of heads and walls. I really felt sympathy for the little pink guy.
Finally, pulling the show together was show’s title character, performed by Austin Archer. All the wily possibilities of the Cat’s imaginations were to be found in his smile, and the sympathy of failure in his skulk. I knew that the fun was beginning when Archer’s hips did a little shake and he did a little hop. Archer also gave the audience impressive ball games, balancing acts, and best cleanup job of a house in history.
While I was thoroughly impressed, the best indicator of a truly successful evening was my 3-year-old son’s reaction to his first play. The show eventually had him out of seat jumping up and down, clapping, and laughing. Furthermore, I could tell the breadth of the comic potential in the performance, as sometimes he was the only person laughing, while at other times it was slightly older children. Yet, there were plenty of moments when the adults raucously enjoyed themselves.
SLAC has taken a classic children’s story and done it right. Director Penelope Caywood has orchestrated, blocked, and choreographed a fun evening that will run entertain any child. So, if looking through the window at the snow sounds as un-fun to you as to Boy and Sally, you should go see the Cat in the Hat’s tricks.