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A transformation of children's literature

Teen Musical Theater of Oregon reins in the sprawling mix of Dr. Seuss tales that is "Seussical: The Musical" with a unifying theme.

The musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty is based mainly on an amalgamation of Seuss' famous books, including "Horton Hears a Who!," "Horton Hatches the Egg," "The Cat in the Hat," "Green Eggs and Ham," "If I Ran the Circus," and "Miss Gertrude McFuzz." The show debuted on Broadway in 2000 before generating two national tours and a tour of the UK.

After a poor showing on Broadway, the script for the first tour was reworked, with the removal or reworking of several songs. The biggest change is an anonymous boy who thinks up "The Cat in the Hat" when he discovers a strange hat center stage. The Cat helps the boy create the Seussian world and the rest of the story. This version of the musical has enjoyed some success in regional and children's theater companies.

The show's Broadway production closed after less than a year. Critics said it had too many characters and a byzantine plot.

Director Andrea Hochkeppel sets TMTO's production of the musical in a library.

"The show was a flop on Broadway," she concedes. "The characters all came from separate books. In my mind, I thought if a kid was reading Dr. Seuss books and imagining a world where the characters can meet, it would make more sense to have the setting be a library. One of the main complaints from critics was it was just too much. I really wanted to find a way to put everything together. The library theme is the vehicle to do that."

TMTO — Craterian Performances' Youth Theater Program — will present "Seussical: The Musical" at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 8-9, and Thursday and Friday, Dec. 14-15, at the Craterian Theater, 23 S. Central Ave., Medford. A matinee performance is set for 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 16. Tickets are $24, $12 for ages 18 and younger, and can be purchased at craterian.org, at the box office, 16 S. Bartlett St., or by calling 541-779-3000.

Hochkeppel says TMTO performed the musical almost a decade ago. A few teens in the current production were children in that earlier production. This year's version will feature new costumes and sets.

"It's one of the favorites of a lot of kids and families," she says. "We are rethinking the show in a completely new way."

In this production, a boy is reading an anthology of Seuss classics in a library. As his imagination takes over, people from the library are transformed into Seuss characters, including the librarian, who becomes the Cat in the Hat.

The plot device is similar to the film version of "The Wizard of Oz," in which Dorothy travels to a fantastical kingdom and meets a witch, lion, scarecrow, tin man and others who resemble people back in Kansas, Hochkeppel notes.

Horton the elephant has a starring role in the musical, protecting the microscopic people of Who-ville, who live on a speck of dust. His other adventures include having to sit on an egg abandoned by its mother, and being captured by hunters.

As a romantic subplot, the bird-like creature Gertrude McFuzz pines after Horton. She believes growing elaborate feathers will win his love, but later learns helping him outwit evil characters is the best way to forge a relationship.

Hochkeppel says the musical is an ode to Dr. Seuss books, which transformed the landscape of early children's literature.

Theodor Geisel wrote his breakthrough book "The Cat in the Hat" after Life magazine published an article by John Hersey in which he argued boring, insipid school primers featuring Dick and Jane were discouraging kids from learning to read. Hersey pointed to illustrators such as Geisel, who wrote under the pen name Dr. Seuss, and Walt Disney as examples of artists who could revolutionize school primers.

A publisher who read the article gave Geisel a list of more than 200 kid-friendly words and urged him, "Write me a story that first-graders can't put down!"

Although Geisel chaffed at the vocabulary limitations and struggled for months, he eventually came up with "The Cat in the Hat," which ended up becoming one of the bestselling children's books.

Hochkeppel says Geisel's books continue to be loved by each succeeding generation. While she grew up with Dr. Seuss classics, she wasn't sure how many cast members would be familiar with the stories.

"The majority of the kids knew who the characters were, knew about Dr. Seuss and knew that was his pen name. They all knew the stories. These books unite generations," Hochkeppel says. "I feel very passionate about Dr. Seuss books and the show itself."

Christopher Kranenburg, Gabe Fitzpatrick and Benjamin Franklin appear in Craterian Performances' 'Seussical the Musical.' [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]