An almost ridiculously good year for Twin Cities theater gets ridiculously gooder with the arrival of “Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax” at Children’s Theatre Company.
The category of page-to-stage adaptations is littered with lifeless corpses of books that were too internal to function theatrically and playwrights who missed the point of the books they were supposed to adapt. So it feels miraculous that “Lorax” is not only terrific but that 90 percent of it was invented by playwright David Greig, yet it all feels like it could have sprung straight from the curlicued pen of the man who called himself Dr. Seuss.
A new back story opens the show: Teenaged Once-ler (Steven Epp) is being 86’ed by his nasty family, thus establishing that, as Stephen Sondheim put it in another musical, he’s “depraved on account of he’s deprived.” With a pair of knitting needles and the fluff of a Truffula tree, Once-ler crafts a thneed, a useless item that becomes hugely popular and turns Once-ler into a vile, resource-depleting tycoon. Standing in his way is the principled Lorax, a puppet who resembles a basketball with a mustache and who is hypnotically operated by Rick Miller (feet), Meghan Kreidler (torso and one arm) and H. Adam Harris (head, the other arm and Lorax’s soulful voice).
“I speak for the trees!” the Lorax famously shouts, but he gets a lot of help in that area. Inventive puppetry (swans fly out over the audience and fish leap from a pond to sing), catchy songs in a variety of idioms (it takes nerve to do a “Times They Are a-Changin’ ” pastiche in Bob Dylan’s native land, but composer Charlie Fink aces it), impressive sets in a batch of Starburst colors and Max Webster’s wickedly clever direction all help make the case for environmental responsibility.
“The Lorax” was originally staged at London’s Old Vic. The production has moved to CTC with a new cast, and it’s difficult to imagine a better one. Epp’s Once-ler is both Seussian and Shakespearean, going on a character journey that rivals — and I’m not kidding — King Lear. Epp brings a wistful, dreamy quality to the young Once-ler, who is beaten but continues to move forward. Once-ler gains the confidence and bravado of a hair-band frontman, then slides into James Bond villain territory in his middle years before gaining late-in-life redemption in a touching finale that out-Seusses Seuss.
There’s a lot of fine acting in “The Lorax,” a show you emphatically do not need to be a kid to love, but attention must be paid to the title creature. It’s Harris we look to for Lorax’s expressions, since the puppet’s face never changes, and Harris takes the character from angry to bewildered to heartbroken. Kreidler supplies lovely grace notes such as a moment when the Lorax, saying goodbye to a friend, tenderly ruffs his hair, and Miller, bent in half as he bends to operate the feet, conveys a lot without speaking a word or showing his face. Those three get the final bow in “The Lorax” and it is richly deserved.