July 20, 2007

One part witty brevity, the other way too familiar
by David Ollington

Lyricist/playwright Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty stand as one of the most highly regarded musical theatre creators of our time. During their 20-years of collaborating, they’ve demonstrated ingenuity, innovation and charm with such creations as 1998’s Ragtime about the cultural differences at the turn of the 20th century, the popular Once On This Island (1990), which danced through a Caribbean allegory, and the animated film Anastasia (1997). They put years of creativity and sweat into the Broadway show Seussical (2000), a theatrical melding of several of the works of Dr. Seuss. A writer for musical theatre faces the challenge of seeing her or his work altered, revised and often expurgated before the public takes in the final version. Ahrens and Flaherty, for Seussical, created a short opera based on Suess’ book The Lorax. Though eliminated from Seussical, The Lorax is available for production — a ten-minute piece.

In Twice Upon A Time – The Emperor’s New Clothes, the Boy (Michael Haas) transforms into the ruler of an empire. (photo by Marianne Kilroy/Digital Labrador)

The Coterie Theatre in Crown Center currently offers The Lorax coupled with a one-act musical by Ahrens and Flaherty, their version of The Emperor’s New Clothes. They titled the entire event Twice Upon a Time and it runs until Aug. 5.

Dr. Seuss published The Lorax in 1971. With his reliable wit, creative rhyming methods and furry, organic illustrations, he created a story about deforestation and industrialization. In the musical version, the Cat in the Hat (Christopher Holbrook) accompanies a Boy (Evan Michael Haas) onstage to begin a dialogue with a faceless voice. Hiding with shame behind a zany looking boarded up window, Seth Golay as the Once-ler tells the Boy a sad tale regarding the drastic change through which this land long ago went.

The onstage action cuts to an extensive flashback, and Golay appears as the Once-ler from before, unhidden now, confident and slick. He arrived in this town and discovered the Truffula Trees, specifically that he could chop them down and use them to create “Thneeds,” a highly versatile garment that everyone needs. A furry, vocal creature, the Lorax (Justin Van Pelt) repeats, “I am the Lorax and I speak for the trees,” imploring the Once-ler to desist the chopping. The cast executes a rhythmic patter illustrating the incessant chopping, knitting and Thneed creation. Short, to the point, a little predictable but still touching, the opening Lorax segment of Twice Upon a Time manages to both tickle and touch the heart.

Ahrens and Flaherty created The Lorax (and Seussical) after almost two decades of collaboration, and their maturity shows in the crafting of the work. Operatic in that the music (expertly manifested by Musical Director Molly Jessup) continues throughout the story. The Lorax varies in tempo and mood and makes a magnificent sweep in a mere ten minutes.

Jeff Church and Ernie Nolan directed The Lorax and The Emperor’s New Clothes respectively. Once The Lorax concludes, the two directors devised a clever transition where Haas transforms from curious Boy into a teenaged ruler of an empire, Emperor Marcus the third.

Ahrens and Flaherty adapted the Hans Christian Andersen story about an exceedingly vain emperor, obsessed particularly with clothing. Ahrens found a reason for the vanity. In this version, Marcus feels insecure about taking on the responsibilities of an empire, particularly because of his age. After viewing his predecessors (cleverly staged with actors holding up frames and portraying the portraits) he decides that he must look the part and needs better clothes.

Golay again plays a swindling villain, connecting the two stories. As (in this story) “Swindler,” he enters several times, always with a new con. Upon learning of Emperor Marcus the third’s clothing obsession, he presents himself as a weaver and tailor whose creations can only be seen by the virtuous. He holds up empty hangers, claiming to brandish the new garments and the vain characters behave as if they see clothing, so as not to appear foolish.

Meanwhile, Marcus befriends Arno, the royal scrub boy (Francisco “Pancho” Villegas). Although drastically different in class, they connect because of their similar age.

Fifteen years passed between the first realizations of The Emperor’s New Clothes and The Lorax. Viewing the two works back to back manages to emphasize some of the more cumbersome differences.

The Lorax, the more mature creation, moves along with innovation and specificity. The Emperor’s New Clothes remains on one frantic, noisy level. The second work lasts notably longer, and that coupled with the monochromatic dynamic makes Emperor more tiresome. We witness a lovely, innovative Seuss opera with witty brevity then tool through a lengthy story we all know. The children get restless.

The scenes and songs between Villegas and Haas in particular ride on one high-level vibration and grow tedious.

The design staff created a visually stunning environment. Art Kent’s lighting evokes countless moods and settings. A clear and quick day passes during The Lorax, and Kent’s magic strikes awe with the dawn, the noon and the dusk. Scott Hobart’s set design offers fluid, curved platforms with a wonderfully Seuss-like craziness.

The window from which we initially hear the Once-ler offers particular allure. Hobart designed it so actors can comfortably stand yet they appear to play their scenes from the second floor of a building. Costume designer Jon Fulton Adams equals Kent and Hobart with character-specific detail and some lovely cuts and fabric patterns in the second offering.

Twice Upon a Time merits witness; the Coterie maintains its consistent high standards. It runs until Aug. 5 at the Coterie Theatre in Crown Center. Call the Coterie box office at 816-474-6552 or visit

David Ollington can be contacted at


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