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Salute to Seuss: Shenandoah summer theater takes on the doctor

Tom Sweitzer rehearses
Tom Sweitzer, who plays Horton the Elephant in the upcoming performance of "Seussical" at Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre, rehearses for the show. "Seussical" runs Wednesday through July 18 at the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre at Shenandoah University. Dennis Grundman/Daily (Buy photo)

Robin Higginbotham works with cast members
Robin Higginbotham, front, the choreographer for "Seussical," works with cast members. Dennis Grundman/Daily (Buy photo)

Tamara Young has her hand and arm kissed
Tamara Young, left, who plays Gertrude McFuzz, has her hand and arm kissed by Rick Wesley, as the Cat in the Hat, during a rehearsal for "Seussical." Dennis Grundman/Daily (Buy photo)

By J.R. Williams - jrwilliams@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- This summer at Shenandoah University, they're setting the stage for a salute to Seuss.

"Seussical," the popular musical based on the collective works of legendary children's book creator and rhythmic magician Dr. Seuss, is in rehearsals at the Shenandoah Summer Music Theatre and will be performed Wednesday through July 18.

Spectators are sure to see the cartoon colors and phrases synonymous with the celebrated Seuss. The summer theater last performed the show in 2004, and Rick Wesley, who acts as the Cat in the Hat, is back.

"The cat is the coolest," said Wesley, a Shenandoah University graduate and summer theater regular, during a rehearsal of the show's second act. "He's the emcee. He's the guy that makes everything happen. He's imagination incarnate."

Tom Sweitzer also returns to reprise the role of Horton the Elephant, which he played in 2004.

"Seussical" will be the third production from the summer theater this year, followed by "White Christmas," which will close out the season beginning July 21.

The show was chosen by audience members for production. But director Harold "Hal" Herman said the theater took a fresh approach from the 2004 show.

"It's almost like starting again, because we couldn't remember everything from the last production," said Herman, who founded the summer theater in 1984. "We started out improvising. It tells a story that I think is a relevant one. The Seuss books have a lot of message to them. There's a beautiful musical score.

"As I talk to groups, I tell them it's for children of all ages," Herman said. "There is so much of it, and it's so different."

"Seussical" draws on familiar characters of the famed Dr. Seuss books -- "The Cat in the Hat," "Horton Hears a Who!" "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and others -- but the cat serves as a guide through the plot line's twists and turns as Horton the Elephant protects the Whos of Whoville and keeps watch over an egg neglected by Mayzie La Bird.

But like a Dr. Seuss book, the visuals can be just as entertaining as the story line. And "Seussical" has no shortage of musical numbers to keep the actors singing.

With about 40 characters completing the cast, choreography can be consuming.

"The music never stops," said Robin Higginbotham, the show's choreographer and co-director. "It's great music. We have a great group."

A mixture of aspiring actors join the returning veterans of the summer theater. Lienn Swearingen, a 21-year-old rising junior, is a performing intern and plays a Who of Whoville in "Seussical."

"It's so outlandish and cheesy, but adults as well as kids get the excitement," she said. "I grew up reading Dr. Seuss, so it holds that special place from my childhood. It's a very well put-together show."

Swearingen is pursuing a degree in music theater at Shenandoah, and like many of her colleagues, she lives the aggressive schedule of performing "Oklahoma!" at night and rehearsing "Seussical" by day.

Doesn't it feel like a hamster in a wheel?

"It's OK," she said. "I'm doing what I want to do. We have fun."

"Seussical" runs Wednesday through July 18 at Shenandoah University's Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m.

Matinees are every Saturday and on July 16 at 2:30 p.m. For tickets, visit shenandoahsummermusictheatre.com or call the box office at 665-4569 or 877-580-8029.


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