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The Lorax: amping up theatrical magic and song and dance to deliver a blunt parable - Drew Rowsome - MyGayToronto

The Lorax: amping up theatrical magic and song and dance to deliver a blunt parable
19 December 2017

by Drew Rowsome
- Photos by Manuel Harlan

Guncles, which could be a Seussian word, in the GTA are getting a big break this holiday season. One of the most sacred of all guncle duties, is instilling a love of musical theatre into their nieces and nephews, and the best way to achieve that noble aim is to expose them to the best the art form has to offer. So far this season there have been at least two sterling opportunities and now there is a third, The Lorax. An afternoon, or evening, of theatre that is not just entertaining for the children it is ostensibly aimed at.

Dr Seuss's book The Lorax is a blunt eco-parable that manages to charm thanks to Seuss's clever rhymes and wonderfully whimsical illustrations and invention. The stage version maintains the bluntness, adds its own clever rhymes courtesy of a remarkably faithful-with-extrapolation text by David Grieg, and bumps the whimsy and invention over the top with state-of-the-art theatrical magic and eye-popping puppets. The effects range from the spectacular to the comical, but always with a fourth wall breaking explication of how they are done. This is the best kind of puppetry, the audience is in on it and thus completely suspends disbelief. 

The message of The Lorax is similarly tweaked with the villainous Once-ler given a back story and motivation. In a pointedly ambiguous speech he asks the audience if we'd be willing to save the forest by giving up our cell phones. It is far more effective than just lecturing or preaching. It is made clear that we are all part of the problem: industry is destroying the planet but we are dependent on industry and are complicit.

Heavy stuff for a musical, but the songs courtesy of Charlie Fink are catchy and in idioms from classical musical theatre to rap and techno. The dancing is acrobatic and the sets and costumes crib unabashedly from the loopy illustrations that Seuss excelled at. The ensemble does double, triple and more duty, morphing from a white (in this case green) trash family to lawyer; from bar-ba-loot to swomee-swan and, quite memorably, manatees complete with a pond; from factory workers to runway Thneed models. I wish I knew who to credit for being the outrageous and unforgettable dancing banana, he is a delight. 

Simon Paisley Day gives us a Once-ler who is naive and sweet so that the destruction he causes when he is lured into greed is all the more horrible. The Lorax is a complete living character whose creation suffers from the same skillful fate of the other extraordinary puppets conjured by Ronnie Burkett and Adam Proulx: David Ricardo-Pearce is so ruggedly handsome, talented and fine-voiced that the audience is treated to two points of focus. The Lorax team also consists of the silent but athletic Laura Caldow and Ben Thompson, and the trio creates a Lorax who breaks one's heart. In the grand tradition of puppets being able to access emotions in an uncanny way, I brushed away a tear as the Lorax stood atop the stump of the last Truffula tree and spoke. The poor tot a few rows back was consumed with grief and gut-wrenching sobs.

There are a few quibbles that don't quite get lost in the fast-pace and vibrant colours. Wendy Mae Brown is given only one chance to unleash a voice that shakes the rafters and jolts the audience in a way that the other, though not shabby at all, voices never achieve. She may not have been the one speaking for the trees, but she is a showstopper that should have set the bar. And there is a problematic character in Small Ed who, perhaps betraying its British origins, reads as immigrant blaming for the Once-ler woes. Michael Ajao attempts to compensate in a set piece that opens the second act but, despite his best efforts, it is a weak counterbalance. His being the only male cast member who is a poc, the character's antics cast a queasy pall over the production.

If one doesn't think too hard - after all the audience is seated in a theatre whose sister theatre was set to be razed, like the late lamented Honest Ed's, for a development that is, in the Once-ler's words, "biggering" - and lets oneself fall under the spell of The Lorax, it is a rich and emotional experience. Try to resist the eerie eyes of the Once-ler in its tower, the soaring swomee swans, or the Truffula trees as they descend from the rafters in glittery glory for one of the most glorious set changes I have ever seen. As all guncles know, theatre is supposed to tackle the deep themes, the dark thoughts, the ephemeral through song and dance, and The Lorax doesn't gloss over that responsibility but tackles it head on with a forthrightness Dr Seuss would appreciate. The Lorax may not have all the answers, but it does a damn fine job of presenting all the right questions.

The Lorax continues until Sun, Jan 21 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King St W. mirvish.com

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