Dare to Defy presents Seussical at the Victoria Theatre

PhotoChavin Medina as Jojo and A.J. Breslin as the Cat in the Hat; photo: Mackensie King

By Erin Callahan

What comes to mind when you think of Dr. Seuss? Maybe you think about Sam I Am’s whimsical rhyming in “Green Eggs and Ham,” every foot in “The Foot Book,” or the Cat in the Hat’s catastrophes. Or maybe you’re reminded of the grumpy old Grinch who was won over by the hopeful Whos of Whoville, or the dozens more stories this author told throughout his career.

While these unique characters likely bring back many childhood memories spent with Dr. Seuss’ iconic books, there are lessons that live beneath the surface of the silliness. These lessons are what Rebecca Norgaard, executive director of the Dayton-based professional theatre production company Dare to Defy, hopes to portray in their presentation of Seussical and Seussical Jr., September 7–9.

Dare to Defy is run solely by volunteers and gives local talent an opportunity to live their dreams in theater and make a living from it.

“We have such great programs like Muse Machine and Stivers, and we build this great talent, but once they get out of those programs, there’s not a lot of work for them here,” Norgaard explains. “So the whole mission is to celebrate the talent we have in our own community, give them opportunities to perform, or design sets or lights, manage shows, the whole process, and be compensated for their time.”

Norgaard admits Seussical isn’t the type of show that would be included in their usual repertoire, but they found it as an opportunity to connect with and even expand their audience.

“We tend to do things that are usually a little more… well, not risky on purpose, but we want our art to ask questions and make people think,” Norgaard explains. “This year we picked some of our shows based on a survey of our audience. There was no prompting; there wasn’t a list or anything like that. It just said, ‘What show would you like to see us do?’ The show they picked the most was Seussical, and I was kind of surprised. But it’s a good fit for our talent, and we were really excited for the opportunity to open our audiences up and do something that kids could come and see.

“But we’re still going to do it our way,” she continues. “And what I mean by that is, we’re still going to make sure we explore all the depths of the material, make sure all of the characters are three-dimensional, and that we’re true to what Dr. Seuss was really trying to say. There are depths and meanings behind what he was writing. So although we’re going to make it colorful, and the music is fun, and we have a lot of kids in it, we’re still going to make sure we’re true to the themes.”

Exploring the depth and meaning of themes beyond the lines of the script takes commitment, but Norgaard made it a priority for the cast to be able to convey Dr. Seuss’ messages.

“So our process is we do the material as it’s written and we don’t change any of the text,” she explains. “I spend a lot of time delving into what it’s in there, and why this is important to whoever wrote it, so I can make sure we’re not just glossing over the surface. So I did a lot of research on Dr. Seuss, and I read it kind of like you would a fable. What is the moral of the story? What is it really trying to say?”

By looking deeper, Norgaard found themes of acceptance despite differences, and love despite insecurities. One example, she notes, is the character Gertrude McFuzz. She’s a bird with only one tail feather who yearns to have big, colorful tail feathers like the rest of the birds. She goes to the doctor to get new tail feathers, but they end up feeling uncomfortable and over the top. Through her journey, she ends up finding a place of love, acceptance, and her own kind of beauty.

“She ends up being beautiful because she ends up being confident in herself,” Norgaard says. “I really want it to be relatable for any young girl sitting in the audience who feels insecure about themselves, that they don’t have to try to fit someone else’s definition of beauty. There are a lot of overlapping stories in [Seussical], but every story has something like that, where it’s written for a reason. It’s putting it in this made up world, and that makes it palatable. It’s fun but it also challenges paradigms. Every opportunity I have, then, I challenge the actors to come across with what the audience is expecting but also what Dr. Seuss was trying to make palatable.”

Norgaard shares that the talent is not lacking when it comes to this production, between the full cast of Seussical and the child-only production, Seussical Jr. There’s a special spark that was necessary for these actors to possess to truly embody any Seuss character, and Norgaard believes she’s found it. 

“For every single character we cast, we looked at not only can they sing or act, but are they going to be someone who can make the audience feel something? That’s the most important thing no matter what kind of show we do,” she says. “When we were casting the Cat in the Hat, he needed to be bigger than life, and be able to command attention and make you think. We were lucky to get a very talented actor, A.J. Breslin, who has this extra charisma, and the ability to play different characters—because the cat takes on many roles in the show—and he can get people to think about things. 

“I want the audience to know that they had an experience and they got to feel something, that they were challenged a little bit and they had a great time,” she continues. “It takes special actors to be able to do that and we were really lucky to find someone that fit every role.”

Though Dare to Defy is a relatively new organization, Norgaard says they’re evolving every day to deliver high-quality experiences, and she emphasizes the high caliber of talent that you can find right here in Dayton.

“I know [the audience] won’t be disappointed,” she says. “We don’t have a Broadway budget, but I would say the talent level is comparable to anything that comes through here. So you can get the same level of talent but you’re not going to have to pay touring prices for it. It’s like this symbiotic [relationship] that all of the money that comes in goes out to local artists and they spend their money here, so it’s all completely focused on our own community.”

Seussical takes the stage on Thursday, Sept. 7 at 7 p.m., and on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 8–9 at 8 p.m. at the Victoria Theatre, 138 N. Main St. in Dayton. Seussical Jr. takes the stage on Saturday, Sept. 9 at 2 p.m. For more information, please visit D2Defy.com.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Erin Callahan at ErinCallahan@DaytonCityPaper.com

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