Review: ‘The Cat In the Hat’ and his fun that is funny

 A somewhat crotchety fish, Maggie Johnson, Doug Hara (as the Cat) and Richard Crandle in Arden Theatre Company’s production of 'The Cat in the Hat' by Dr. Seuss. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

A somewhat crotchety fish, Maggie Johnson, Doug Hara (as the Cat) and Richard Crandle in Arden Theatre Company’s production of 'The Cat in the Hat' by Dr. Seuss. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

“So all we could do was to Sit! Sit! Sit! Sit! And we did not like it. Not one little bit.” Aw, too bad for a gloomy brother and sister, trapped in their house on a cold, cold wet day while their mother is out. But I can tell you, it’s not the case for the kids who sit-sit-sit-sit, these mornings, at the Arden Theatre.

I’m not in the habit of reviewing the audience, but for “The Cat in the Hat” the sole assessment of a clearly aging kid like me is hardly enough. Probably 95 percent of the full-house audience that surrounded me at the Arden the other morning was age 9 or under, and they were magnetized.

Just like, um, I was. The show is, of course, based on the seminal children’s book by Dr. Seuss. It’s been adapted by Katie Mitchell and originally produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain – a pretty good provenance for a piece of children’s theater or any theater. But, then, if you believe that children’s theater is a simple affair in an era when pre-schoolers operate digital devices and such, you haven’t gone in a while.

I’m thinking that about a bazillion kids, give or take a zillion, will see “The Cat in the Hat” before it ends June 29; it’s been on for a while and is now extended to that date and, like several Arden kids’ shows, it may be hot enough at the box office to run until … who knows? The children in the audience come with parents and grandparents and siblings, and many arrive in large school groups.

After the show, a few of them get a chance to ask about anything they want in an audience talk-back, and after that, they swarm into the lobby where the actors are available to answer more questions. With kids this young, that’s maybe the sweetest moment of all to witness – you can see the thrill in their faces while they’re standing around an actor they just saw on stage.

It pays the Arden to do these shows up right, not just because of the large audience draw, but because the young ones in the seats are the theatergoers of tomorrow. But mostly, I’m convinced the Arden and the Walnut Street Theatre and other companies around the nation that spend a lot of time and energy on children’s theater stage it to the max because doing anything less is not in their bloodstreams. When you’re in the business of making art, you just don’t go half-way.

“The Cat In the Hat” goes the distance – every piece of the lovable book gets onto the stage. Doug Hara and Steve Pacek direct the show, which includes a lot of great stage business they dreamed up. And Hara – with eyes that speak for him whenever he has no lines – plays the title role, right down to manipulating a ship, a fish, two books, a cup and a cake on his head all at once while standing on a ball. (That cat was some facile feline.)

Richard Crandle is the boy and Maggie Johnson, the girl – neither of them is young enough to be characterized that way, and both are wonderfully believable, The all-around theater artists Charlotte Ford and Dave Johnson are those industrial-strength miscreants, Thing I and Thing II.

And that fish – with its schoolmarmish gill-pointing – is played by almost everyone; the actors pass the hand-puppet to one another to manipulate. The fish in this version is a lovely stage effect, designed by Alisa Sickora Kleckner. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s living-room set seems straight out of the book and Lauren Perigard’s costumes for the Cat and the Things are great fun.

None of this would work as well as it does without Rick Sims’ eloquent sound design, which nearly steals the show. The bumps, thwacks, gurgles and more are – I don’t know how else to write it – beautiful to the ear. If you can hear them over the laughter of children.

“The Cat is the Hat” runs through June 29 at the Arden Theatre, on Second Street north of Market. www.ardentheatre.org or 215-922-1122.

 

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