On the opening night of THE LORAX, when the house lights dimmed and the stage lights grew bright, the excited giggles and murmurs that flitted through the audience proved that children and adults alike were excited to see another Seuss book take onstage. While based on a more serious theme then some of his other books, this play offers a delightful journey into a colorful and creative world with the accompanying reminder that “nothing will change unless someone like you cares an awful lot.”
Often regarded as a story that is more disheartening than hopeful, the show captures a balance of laughter with its lesson. The show conveys the clever wordplay, colorful and creative worlds, and emotional impact of Dr. Seuss’ book. If the Lorax sounds unfamiliar, let me tell you the tale.
The story opens in a grey and dilapidated world as the citizens try to get the history of their town from the Once-ler who has become a recluse and has barricaded himself in a tall tower. Begrudgingly the Once-ler offers to tell the tale of how his journey from sensitive dreamer to slick salesman left a permanent impact both in his life and the countryside and animals around him. His invention born from knitting needles and the tufts from the famed Truffula trees, is the “thneed,”a very ambiguous item that all of society must have (Seuss defined it as “fine something that all people need.”)
When the Lorax, an orange, slightly grumpy, protector of nature in his paradise valley appears to give the Once-ler a good lecture, the crowd of all ages cheered. As he tells the Once-ler when they first meet “I speak for the trees” and that he is a passionate champion of the balance of nature; take care of it and it takes care of you. There is food and room for both the Once-ler and all the animals of the paradise valley.
Alas, the Once-ler does not make good on his promise to the Lorax, and continues to cut down trees, and expand his empire well into the forests running out the animals and polluting the land and water with his factory.
Steven Epp, makes the Once-ler likeable, funny, and fun. He is a dreamer who longs to make those he loves proud, and make a name (and a lot of money) for himself. So watching this sweet kid who genuinely values his friendship with the Lorax, turn into a villain by succumbing to basic greedy impulses with no compunction is heartbreaking and frustrating to watch.
Clothed entirely in green, he’s like a mad Wizard of Oz, building his Emerald City at the expense of the munchkins. Starting out as dreamer, looking for a way to survive and make his family proud (they kicked him out in favor of a boarder), he finds his salvation in the Truffula trees and their soft tufts. He knits the tufts into a “thneed” with the intent to sell and create his fortune. (Side note: knitting leads to evil in this, validating a long held belief of mine. Mostly because I can’t knit but still, evil knitters beware your actions!)
As clever an inventor and salesman the Once-ler is, apparently this does not extend to ladders to get the tufts, instead of cutting the trees down. Even the Lorax points this out, but the Once-ler has no ladder. Even the small decision to cut down instead of get a ladder underscores the fact that he does not care or want to be inconvenienced enough to delay his dream of wealth and power.
The Lorax is brought to life by three extremely talented puppeteers, H. Adam Harris (who also provides the voice), Meghan Kreidler, and Rick Miller. So adept at the Lorax’s characterization it’s sometimes hard to remember that he is a puppet and not a real life fuzzy, orange curmudgeon with a glorious, and blustery moustache.
Epp is supported by an all-around excellent cast. Standouts include Emily Michaels King as an elegant dancing swan who chokes on pollution, and Rajane Katurah who raises the roof as the gospel style singing lawyer who arrives to help the Once-ler get out of his environmentally friendly contract with the Lorax.
Directed by Max Webster, and Associate Director James Vasquez (the director and Grinch whisperer at the Old Globe for the last few years), keep the laughs coming so that the show never trips too far into pathos. Playwright David Greig and composer Charlie Fink have captured the Seussian feeling and rhythm of the rhymes; keeping everything feeling like it came organically from the book.
Finks’ music runs the rage from pop, to folk songs, to even an aggressive rock sound as the trees start coming down due to the “Super Axe Hacker.”
Set and costume design by Rob Howell blend to create a surreal, fantastical world where color and creativity reign. Puppet design by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell don’t just extend to the Lorax, as other expressive puppets of fish, and swans help round out the wildlife in this magical realm.
While the environment is the most forefront theme, caring is another resounding theme throughout; caring for each other, family, friendship, keeping your word, and the world around you. Maybe if the Once-ler didn’t have such a vermicious family (to steal a phrase from another children’s author Roald Dahl), it’s possible he wouldn’t have succumbed so thoroughly to the destruction of others for personal gain.
At two hours with an intermission this is a show that may be a bit too lengthy or mature for the littlest ones in your family.
THE LORAX is a fantastic fable, one that seems as apt for today as when the book was written in 1971. Have no fear that you leave the show feeling weighed down by its message, instead take with it the hope for the change the new generation can bring with it. When the curtain call came on opening night I saw many kids rush to the stage, their gaze filled with awe and delight. So maybe, just maybe the Lorax was right and “It’s not about what it is, it’s about what it can become.”
THE LORAX is presented by The Old Globe and Children’s Theatre Company, in partnership with The Old Vic, through August 12th. For information on tickets and showtimes go to www.theoldglobe.org For information on tickets and showtimes go to www.theoldglobe.org