The Black Box Theater at the Premier Centre for the Arts lives up to its name. With black walls, the small room seems claustrophobic and the least likely place that anybody would stage the colorful cacophony of texture, relentless rhymes and sing-along-worthy songs of a musical like "Seussical Jr."
Cue Nick Manerchia and his team of forward-thinking dramaturges, directors, set builders and costume-makers and, in two shakes of a cat's tail, with twinkles in their eyes, they figured out how to transform darkness into light.
"The Black Box can be limiting, there's no question," said Manerchia, who is also a PCA director and theater instructor. "But, the small space leaves a lot of room for other things. We can do minimal sets and epic costumes. We can actually give people a different experience that, more often than not, is even more satisfying."
This is not PCA's first partnership with Dr. Seuss and his over-the-top, silly-but-wise cast of characters. But, it has been awhile. Manerchia said that the theater first took up the colossal task of bringing the whimsical words of the beloved children's writer in 2004 when the theater still rented out space from Middletown High School.
"It was actually our very first show," said Manerchia. "So, some groups might worry about taking on 'The Cat in the Hat' or Horton the Elephant but we didn't hesitate. The storyline-which is mostly song-is one that everyone seems to love. We couldn't wait to get started."
SMALL STATURES, BIG WORK ETHIC
Get started, they did. Rehearsals began on June 17-a Monday, to be exact-and all 35 kids, plus crew members and volunteers set themselves to work.
"We blocked the entire show in five rehearsals. That's just 15 hours," said Director Mary Dina. "It sounds like a lot but it's not. Not at all. But, that also means that the cast had to be off book very quickly, too. So, believe it or not, it actually only took a few more rehearsals before most of the kids had their parts down pat."
For the more seasoned actors, that might not seem like a big deal. It's just part of being in a show. However, for a newcomer, who's only five years old, there's the possibility that it will be overwhelming.
"Everybody has worked so hard," said Dina, who couldn't seem to help but beam and smile when she talked about the cast. "I'm so proud. Our youngest is five years old-we have several young children-and despite the commotion, the constant choreography, the vocal lessons-they've all just thrived."
Like Dina, Musical Director Cody Munzert attributes the success of the rehearsals to the hard work of the cast. But, in his mind, there's more to it than just hard work.
Page 2 of 2 - "It's mostly energy. The kids have to be excited and they have to want to be there," said 19-year-old Middletown High School graduate Munzert. "And, the energy these kids are bringing is just incredible. They've had something like 40 songs to learn. There's been no complaining, though. Just infectious enthusiasm."
CONSPICUOUS COSTUMED CHARACTERS
When asked about the best part of the production, which is a complex combination of many Dr. Seuss books, all three directors point to the color and the costumes, which were designed and put together by long-time and well known creative force of Dana Kimbrough who used bright colors, lots of tulle and a healthy supply of feathers to bring talking birds and the whole crazy cast alive.
"The color is just amazing," said Dina. "I think it's why I love the opening the most. All the characters enter on the word 'Seuss' and you are just attacked by color. It brings out a lot of the personality of the show and of the kids."
From that opening number, several familiar faces emerge. First, there's Horton the Elephant, who faces two challenges: protecting the invisible Whos and guarding an abandoned egg left to his care.
And, of course, chaos ensues. How could it not when the Cat in the Hat is acting as the narrator?
13-year-old Katie Smith is bringing the white glove and striped hat-wearing mischievous feline to life. It could be intimidating. Smith actually finds the character fun and relatable.
"It's so much fun. As the Cat in the Hat, I get to be about 12 different characters from a doctor to a ringmaster," said Smith with a smile not unlike the famous cat's famous grin. "I also like that the words work out so that people are free to interpret them any way they want to."
Director Dina had a similar take, adding that audiences will not be disappointed.
"The whole visual aspect of it is intoxicating," she said. "The color brings out the energy and the enthusiasm and from the very first second, you are in it. You can't take your eyes off of it."