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Theatre Reviews: "Seussical" at NKU, "Relatively Speaking" at Diogenes

Seussical at Northern Kentucky University

School kids in playful and crayon-colored costumes romp in a schoolyard setting that somehow whooshes us to Horton the Elephant’s jungle home, the world of the Whos and sundry other stops in Seussical at Northern Kentucky University.

This affectionate musical celebration of Dr. Seuss was big, bigger, biggest when it debuted on Broadway years ago. At NKU, the emphasis is on simplicity, which is exactly as it should be.

SEE PREVIOUSLY: Dr. Seuss takes center stage at NKU in unique interpretation of "Seussical"

Cast aside razzle-dazzle and what you have is humanity in this winning, family-friendly show by the ever-tuneful writing team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.

Loyal Horton the Elephant (Brandon Huber) is our hero, devoted to saving the miniscule Whos on a tiny planet no bigger than a bit of dust, even as he has to protect the egg of (a long way from motherly) party girl Mayzie La Bird. It’s an epic hero’s journey.

Director Daryl Harris has executed a nimble production filled with imagination as the ensemble comes together to create an undersea world, a bird on the wing, and gets down to the happy business of song and dance.

Taylor Greatbatch seems tall as a ruler and slim as a pencil as the Cat in the Hat, who guides us through the musical adventure, and Huber beautifully captures Horton’s quiet conviction and courage as he explains one of Dr. Seuss’ great life lessons: “everybody’s a person, no matter how small.” (That ‘small’ can be replaced by a world of defining descriptive words.)

Seussical gives almost everyone on stage a moment in the spotlight and the entire cast does an engaging job of telling their story, individually and as an ensemble.  

At NKU, Seussical is a show for kids and everyone who’s ever been a kid.

Seussical: the Musical, Nov. 12-22. Northern Kentucky University, Corbett Theatre, Fine Arts Center, Highland Heights. Tickets $14, seniors $1, students $8. 859-572-5464 and [email protected].

Relatively Speaking at Diogenes Theatre

I’ve been a fan of Diogenes Theatre, a small professional company, founded by passionate theatre-lover and Edgewood resident Jeffrey Landon. It’s been based at the Aronoff Center since its debut a couple of years ago and has consistently delivered smart, thoughtful, well-acted plays, with lots of risk-taking.

Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking must have looked like an easy-peasy choice: the prolific and terrific British playwright’s first West End hit from back in the day when “England swings like a pendulum do.”

It’s the mid-Sixties and Ginny (Bailie Breaux) has a new boyfriend. She has plenty of sexual experience, and she’s recently broken off – or attempted to – with her much older married lover.

Her current boyfriend Greg (Patrick E. Phillips) is one of Ayckbourn’s sweet-but-dim fellows.

(Through the course of dozens of plays, we meet many of them.) Naïve and a sexual novice, Greg is smitten but – where are the flowers and boxes of chokkies coming from? And what about the mysterious phone calls and the slippers under the bed that don’t fit him?

Don’t worry about how they get there, but soon enough Greg is the first to arrive at the country home of Ginny’s ex-lover Philip (Robert Pavlovich) and his wife Sheila (Abby Rowold) whom Greg believes are Ginny’s parents.

As Ayckbourn winks at the great tradition of British sex farce, be assured that the foursome manage to converse at cross-purposes and misunderstanding is marvelously maintained for the better part of two acts.

There are a lot of miscalculations here, starting with director Brian Isaac Phillips, who is not adept at British comedy. (Diogenes has a close relationship with Cincy Shakes, with cast and crew members often very familiar to CSC fans.)

Last summer’s Cincinnati Shakespeare hit One Man, Two Governors was heartbreaking. It was passably funny but it’s supposed to be riotous. The kind of funny that steals your breath like a thrill ride. The kind of funny that makes you grateful for intermission so you can take in oxygen.

Relatively Speaking is misguided, too, although not tragically. It’s funny – Ayckbourn is too good a writer for his lines not to land – but this production feels like a pleasant American sitcom as it moseys along. There doesn’t seem to be anything at risk. There has to be risk.

Beneath the best comedy is very often everyday misery and Ayckbourn is a master at illuminating it. His characters always have inner lives which drive who they are and what they do, and in turn, lay the foundation for big comic pay-offs which never come here.

Rowold’s Sheila has the worst of it. She’s amusingly vague, but it’s not nuanced so that we know it’s a retreat from the realities of the pain that comes from a faithless husband and a miserable marriage.

Pavlovich’s Philip should be a lot more fun as he sees the growing mountain of lies and knows at some point it’s going to avalanche down on him. Phillips nails Greg, endearing as a puppy and just as oblivious. Breaux is engaging as can be as a mod girl but she’s way too obvious as she telegraphs Ginny’s giant fibs – we’d have to be idiots not to know she’s lying to Greg. Less would yield a lot more.

Relatively Speaking would have also have benefited from a production design more eloquent than Diogenes’ bare bones style – Ginny wears a mini-skirt, but that’s not really enough to whoosh us through the time machine to the London of a half-century ago. (Half-century??? How did that happen???)

Relatively Speaking, continuing through Nov. 22. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Diogenes Theatre, Fifth Third Bank Theatre, Aronoff Center, Seventh and Main streets, Downtown Cincinnati. Tickets $29, students $14. 513-621-2787 and here.

Reviews by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts