An Ahrens & Flaherty weekend

Nov 12

Broadway may have been pretty quiet last Saturday night (what with the stagehands strike and all), but the Broadway show tunes were ringing sweetly through the Bay Area.

More specifically the show tunes of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty were in the air on both sides of the Bay.

In Berkeley, the newly formed Berkeley Playhouse opened its inaugural production, Ahrens and Flaherty’s Seussical, the much-revised Broadway flop that attempted to find music in the stories of Dr. Seuss.

The Berkeley Playhouse goal is to create high-quality, professional theater that appeals to all ages, and artistic director Elizabeth McKoy and director Kimberly Dooley have succeeded mightily in meeting that goal.

Performed in the Ashby Stage, Seussical features a fantastic cast of professionals, non-professionals, adults and kids – which is a wonderful thing to see.

The show blends pieces of “Horton Hears a Who,” “The Cat in the Hat,’’ “Horton Hatches the Egg,’’ “McElligot’s Pool,’’ “The One Feathre Tail of Miss Gertrude McFuzz,’’ “The Butter Battle Book’’ and “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!’’ to name a few. And the mish-mash nature of the musical might have seemed scattershot in a big, slick, overly produced Broadway show. But within the confines of the Ashby Stage, it all seems pretty agreeable and often quite charming.

The heart of the show is Horton the Elephant, played by Brian Herndon, whose loyalty to the invisible Whos and to the egg he’s trying to hatch is very nearly heartbreaking. Herndon is terrific, as is Gail Wilson as Jojo (alternating in the role with Madeleine Roberts), the little boy who thinks extraordinary thinks (Jojo’s “It’s Possible” is a show highlight).

Another pillar of the large cast is Rebecca Pingree as Gertrude, the bird with two distinguishing features: her one-feather tail and her giant crush on Horton.

Dooley’s vibrant production isn’t cutesy or twee – it’s energetic and straightforward and utterly delightful. Her choreography is lively but not too involved, and on the technical side of things, Lisa Lutkenhouse’s costumes are enchanting (especially the polka dots for the Whos).

Music director Tal Ariel (also the keyboards maestro) and his three-piece band perform the Ahrens-Flaherty score beautifully, giving it some welcome urban edge.

The overall solidity of the production, which blends the charm and enthusiasm of community theater with the dependability and strength of professional theater makes Seussical a promising debut from Berkeley Playhouse and bodes well for future family-friendly productions.

(Seussical continues through Dec. 2. Visit www.berkeleyplayhouse.org for information.)

Over at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center Ahrens and Flaherty themselves were singing songs from Seussical (“Green Eggs and Ham” and “It’s Possible”), along with songs culled from their nearly 25 years of writing musicals together.

Ahrens & Flaherty: Words & Music, a special presentation of Broadway by the Bay was a short-run revue featuring the composers playing (Flaherty), talking (mostly Ahrens) and singing (again, mostly Ahrens) along with some tremendous vocal assists from their friends Marin Mazzie and Jason Daniely – the “golden couple of Broadway.”

Mazzie, taking a break from being the Lady of the Lake in Spamalot, and Daniely, taking a break from Curtains, brought some Broadway razzle dazzle and two gorgeous – and I do mean gorgeous – voices to the stage.

Picking highlights from the 90-minute show, which always felt real and unforced (unlike so many revues), is difficult. Of course Mazzie singing two of her songs from Ragtime, “Goodbye My Love” and “Back to Before,” was electrifying. She has a set of pipes that elicit the chills and tears and thrills that great show tunes should elicit.

Daniely’s “Streets of Dublin” from A Man of No Importance was equally exciting, and the composers were rather adorable on “The Show Biz,” a number cut from Ragtime.

The only show not represented in the revue is Dessa Rose, but that’s a minor complaint in the face of such gorgeous songs as “Once Upon a December” and “Journey to the Past,” both from the animated film Anastasia, or the sexy “Mama Will Provide” from Once on This Island.

Flaherty’s bravura performance of the title song from Ragtime brought down the house, and though the evening had its share of lovely surprises – cute comedy numbers from Lucky Stiff, the first Ahrens and Flaherty show, and intriguing tastes (“Opposite You,” “I Was Here”) of The Glorious Ones, the latest Ahrens and Flaherty musical, which opened last week – the best of all was from a show that isn’t even finished yet.

The song is “Silent,” and it’s from a work in progress called Legacy based on photographs Ahrens’s father took of New York. The song is inspired by a willow tree in Central Park, and it ends up being about aging and being present and part of a beautiful world. In a word, it’s spectacular. Mazzie sang it while sitting on the piano bench next to Flaherty, and it couldn’t have been more moving. This is a song that will get to people for decades.

But that’s the thing about Ahrens and Flaherty, something that became even more apparent over the course of Words & Music: these are songwriters who challenge themselves to write new and different things each time out, and succeed because they do it with such tremendous heart, integrity and intelligence. Sure isn’t enough of that on Broadway.

Visit the official Ahrens & Flaherty Web site at www.ahrensandflaherty.com.

One comment

  1. Did she sound like Liz Callaway when she sang “Once Upon a December” and “Journey to the Past?” I think Liz Callaway sounds a lot like Jodi Benson when she sings those songs.

    I can’t wait to hear “Silent.”

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