And a little child — plus a crotchety curmudgeon — shall lead them.
This unlikely team of peacemakers brings a sharply divided society to a degree of harmony in "Dr. Seuss' The Sneetches," a pun-filled musical that had its world premiere Friday at Children's Theatre in Minneapolis.
Standlee (Natalie Tran) is a privileged kid who is having a hard time at school, where she's friendless and forced to wear a dunce cap. She reaches out to Diggitch (Reed Sigmund), a crabby old man from the working-class part of town. They forge a frowned-upon friendship that helps to heal a rift in their community.
Composer David Mallamud and playwright/lyricist Philip Dawkins have adapted Seuss' allegory about a beach society that's strictly divided between an in group who have stars on their bellies, and outcasts who don't. It's a measure of the timeliness of "Sneetches" that the creative team had to dial back references that seem nakedly political now but were seen as far-fetched three years ago when Dawkins delivered his first draft. (That version featured a politician campaigning to build a wall to separate the haves from have-nots, who would pay for the barrier.)
The CTC premiere has a bold red line running down the middle of the beach and an attentive Beachwatcher (Dean Holt, squawking like a bird) who enforces the separation between the classes. Even with a flattened barrier, the story — written in 1953 as a parable for the segregation era — resonates clearly today.
Staged with energy by Peter Brosius, "Sneetches" stretches Seuss' brief narrative into two hours without seeming to add too much filler. The production takes Seussian style to another level, with a raked set by William Boles and blindingly bright yellow costumes by Alex Jaeger. The choreography by Michael Matthew Ferrell clearly distinguishes the star-bellied Sneetches, who move in a bowlegged, Chaplinesque manner with snoots held high, from the plain bellies, whose droopy gaits match their hangdog expressions.
Aside from a delightful patter song delivered breathlessly by Bradley Greenwald, whose gleefully preying businessman Sylvester McMonkey McBean is the show's most enchanting character, Mallamud's songs are neither terribly tuneful nor memorable. But in their moody agitation, they effectively convey the unease in the story.
The cast is competent and crisp. Sigmund's Diggitch is empathetic. Tran is cute and affecting. Essence Stiggers contributes a stylish turn as Standlee's sister Mee Mee. And Kim Kivens, a frequent guest performer at CTC, stands out as their persnickety star-bellied mother, Mrs. Upplee. Other noteworthy performers include LaMont Ridgell as graybeard Aristartle (did we mention that the show is punny?) and George Keller as glam grandmother Gramlee.
"Sneetches" makes many provocative points, as McBean stokes the divisions between the two groups, seeing a chance to profit from people's insecurities. How to overcome that mutual suspicion is a worthwhile lesson for theatergoers young and old to ponder.