Thom Allison’s got a Seussical state of mind

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

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Interim Head Scenic Carpenter Ryan Oliver, Technical Director Alexis Buset, Cat in the Hat Jonathan Tan, and Director Thom Allison review set design plans for Seussical™; photo by Ali Sultani

Thom Allison’s got another hit on his hands.

Only this time, he’s directing it.

His production of Seussical, a musical based on the books of Dr Seuss (primarily Horton Hears a Who, Horton Hatches an Egg and Miss Gertrude McFuzz) is currently on stage at the Young People’s Theatre (YPT). For YPT, Seussical is an audience favourite  . . . and a bit of an awards magnet. Two earlier productions, both directed by Artistic Director Allen McInnis, played to sold-out houses and earned the company several Dora Mavor Moore Awards. This year’s revival is significant because it’s a brand new production — plus it marks Allison’s first foray into directing.

When Allison and I speak, I’ve just returned from an early-morning optometrist’s appointment. My pupils are dilated, and the brightness of the sun is making it especially difficult to keep my eyes open. So I give in to the inclination to keep them closed, which makes it all the easier to concentrate on his words – which tumble out with enthusiasm and abandon. I ask how much time we have, and he readily replies, “however long you need.” So I settle in for our chat, focussing solely on Allison’s mellifluous voice, warm candour and ready laugh. I understand better than ever why he’s experienced abiding success as an actor and singer – on screen and stage – across Canada and on Broadway. And why directing is a logical progression in his already distinguished career.

Erin Breen and Jonathan Tan in a scene from Seussical™; photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Erin Breen and Jonathan Tan in Seussical™; photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

This production of Seussical is a departure from the previous two, Allison insists. And the difference is rooted in a “kooky but sophisticated” sensibility, shaped by TV shows he watched as a kid: “I grew up with Bugs Bunny and The Muppet Show…Those shows weren’t aimed at kids. Adults could watch the show with their kids and laugh and get all these jokes.” Even as a kid, Allison knew that he didn’t understand all of the jokes. “But it was okay,” he says warmly, “I enjoyed (the show) for what it was. So I approached this show in the same way, like I’m doing a play for adults in terms of trying to be as smart as possible, and not talking down to anyone…and then my own kooky take on it. In terms of the design, it’s my sensibility of what made me laugh, what appealed to my eye as a kid.”

While Allison has attended to the many “bright, colourful and funny” opportunities within Seussical, he has also placed equal emphasis on the multi-layered themes that lie beneath. He feels the musical’s messages of friendship, inclusion and acceptance resonate keenly in the uncertain social climate created by the recent US election. For him, Sour Kangaroo’s line, “someone’s thinkin’ different than us” reverberates outside the play, even as it sets in motion much of the plot within the play: “In that one statement, she explains to us why everyone is against Horton, and she explains exactly the problem that we’re all facing right now, in the world and what the world of the show represents. She’s mad that he’s walking away from what is the norm, what he’s supposed to think about other people and about other things.”

Grace McRae, Arinea Hermans, Robert Markus, Jeigh Madjus, Mike Jackson, Claire Rouleau, Jonathan Tan, Jahlen Barnes, Jacob MacInnis and Erin Breen in a scene from Seussical™ at Young People’s Theatre; Cylla von Tiedemann

Grace McRae, Arinea Hermans, Robert Markus, Jeigh Madjus, Mike Jackson, Claire Rouleau, Jonathan Tan, Jahlen Barnes, Jacob MacInnis and Erin Breen in Seussical™; photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Thematically, the underlying suspicion of what is “different” is precisely the attitude that Horton’s recurring line – “a person’s a person no matter how small” – counters. Allison calls it the show’s “mantra,” which embodies the challenge of diversity: “If you replace the ‘small’ of that statement, with ‘no matter how black’, ‘no matter how gay’, ‘no matter how short’, ‘no matter how female’. . . Put anything in there, and you have basically most of the problems in our modern society, on a world scale. It’s a metaphor for everything!”

In the show, no one can see the Whos, and Horton’s the only one who hears them. Again, for Allison, the point is metaphorical. If you don’t see someone’s worth, you don’t see them… so you certainly don’t see all the ways that they are the same as you: “Then it’s a ‘no…I don’t believe you because I don’t see your point of view.’ And we all want to be seen . . . We all want to be heard.” Warming to his point, he emphasizes how Seussical provides “this message for kids, so beautifully and simply told to the people who see everything in the most clear terms. Children see without all the prejudice that we’ve loaded on them until they learn how to dislike, to disapprove.”

Allison realizes the responsibility of conveying this sober complexity – underlying the bright and “costume-y” fun – to the impressionable sensibilities of young people . . . all in a lively and economical 75 minutes. And the headiest part of it all?  The fact that, as director, every decision on how to accomplish all this is his: “That’s the part that made me go ‘holy cow!’ I have to be on my game all the time. That’s the big ‘wow’: it’s all me. They’re all coming to me to say ‘yes?’ ‘no?’ ‘black?’ ‘white?’ ‘yellow?’ ‘leaves?’  ‘green?’ ‘chocolate?’…. Every kooky decision is up to me.”

Jeigh Madjus and Jonathan Tan in a scene from Seussical™; photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Jeigh Madjus and Jonathan Tan in Seussical™; photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Though the scope of the experience is huge, he has very much appreciated the “invitation to rise” to the challenge. To give himself permission to take time to consider a request before acting on it. And to make a new choice when something doesn’t work. In fact, he sees this as his most “interesting” takeaway: “I’ve learned to trust myself, whether I’m right or wrong. The world doesn’t stop if you’re wrong,” he says wryly. “It just means that you’ve changed your mind.” Overall, this directing experience has been a “joy,” particularly given YPT’s awareness of its diverse audience.  YPT knows “they’re speaking to everyone,” and they do their utmost to “reflect whose stories they’re telling on stage.” Allison is keenly grateful for YPT’s commitment to bringing his ideas to life, and for the dedication of a fiercely talented and diverse team.  Each is “perfect for the role” they’re in – and all are unanimously “game for the ride.”

As my chat with Allison draws to a natural close, I realize that another famous Seuss pronouncement “you’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut” has not applied to me and my dilated pupils. I didn’t see Allison . . . but in spite of this (or maybe because of it), after our conversation, I find myself especially attuned to what he’s said about the pertinence of Seussical, given the resurgence of bigotry after the US election. It’s important to make the effort to understand what you doesn’t necessarily see, and to listen when “someone’s thinkin’ different than us.” In fact, it’s urgent to do so. In this light, reviving a musical imbued with optimism, compassion, and a celebration of difference is altogether appropriate, even curative. And if YPT can extend the show run beyond the December 31 finale, even more people can experience Allison’s “kooky sensibility”–a dynamic and sensitive “thinkiness” that I feel confident Dr Seuss himself would get behind.

Arinea Hermans and Jacob MacInnis in a scene from Seussical™; photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Arinea Hermans and Jacob MacInnis in Seussical™; photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

News You Can Use

What: Seussical by Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty and Eric Idle, based on the works of Dr. Seuss; featuring Jahlen Barnes, Erin Breen, Arinea Hermans, Mike Jackson, Jacob MacInnis, Jeigh Madjus, Robert Markus, Grace McRae, Erica Peck, Claire Rouleau and Jonathan Tan; directed by Thom Allison

Who: Audiences 5 years of age and up

When: On stage until December 31, 2016

Where: Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto, ON

 For information and tickets:  416.862.2222 and youngpeoplestheatre.ca

Additional Resource: Seussical Study Guide

© 2016 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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