THEATER REVIEW: Sneetches: The Musical

written by David Steffen

I am a lifelong Dr. Seuss fan, so I was very excited to hear that Sneetches: The Musical.  In case you haven’t heard of it, “The Sneetches” is a children’s story by children’s author and illustrator Dr. Seuss (the pen name of Theodor Geisel), published in the collection The Sneetches and Other Stories originally published in 1953 and still available in print.

The original Sneetches story was very short, but was one of Seuss’s most memorable pieces, about two groups of birds whose only distinguishing characteristics are that one group has green stars on their bellies and the other has none.  The star-belly sneetches use this cosmetic difference as a reason to justify poor treatment of the poor-belly sneetches while the star-belly sneetches exclude plain-belly sneetches from all of their social events.  This inequality continues unchanged until the shyster businessman Sylvester McMonkey McBean comes to town selling the use of a machine that will put stars on bellies, and then when the original star-belly sneetches complain about the injustice of it all he offers use of another machine that will remove stars from bellies, and the sneetches all run from one machine to another until all of the sneetches are bankrupt.  McBean leaves town much richer than when he came, and the sneetches actually learn a lesson from the ordeal–all treating each other as equals.

The story could be seen as having several different themes or lessons (such as the distrust of the motivations of profiteers, as in The Lorax), but the biggest by far is that we shouldn’t treat each other poorly because of trivial differences between us.  I like this story for kid’s for a major reason I love SF in general–by framing a real-life problem in an imaginary way, it becomes much easier to approach contentious subjects and convey a point of view on them.  Most people, reading this story, would agree that it’s silly for the star-bellies to shun the plain-bellies just because of that marking.  Why then are other real-life traits like skin color used for the same thing?  The original story was published when school segregation was still legal, and not long after witnessing the Nazi treatment of Jews in WWII.

Now to the present, with the worldwide premier of Sneetches the Musical in 2017 at the Minnesota Children’s Theater in St. Paul.  Dr. Seuss had collaborated with the Minnesota Children’s Theater many times while he was alive, granting them the rights to produce plays based on his works, and this is just the newest in a series.  I did wonder how they were going to produce a full length theater production from a picture book you can read in five minutes, but I was interested to find out.

The answer was that they created protagonists and they added much more detail to the society of the sneetches.  The original book had had no named characters apart from McBean–just hordes of sneetches with or without star-bellies.  The musical creates a cast of characters, focusing especially on a young star-belly girl and an older plain-belly man.  The society is filled out so that it’s not only shunning from social events that mark the two groups apart, but every aspect of their lives:  including physical separation on Sneetch Beach where one side is star-belly only and the other is plain-belly only, as well as occupation and living conditions–plain-bellies toil in factories all day while the star-bellies are frolicking on the beach.

The set design was the highlight of the production–the stage had a Seussian feel from the first moment I walked into the theater with brightly colored off-kilter set design, especially the very very tall wavery lifeguard chair overlooking Sneetch Beach split with a taped line down the middle.  I wasn’t sure what I thought about the Sneetch costumes at first–primarily because they were not apparently birds at all.  Each had their own unique costume that exposed fuzzy yellow midriffs with or without stars and had yellow wigs.  But, practically speaking I can see why costuming made that decision–if all of the characters had beaks it would probably make it much harder to differentiate one character from another in a theater setting where you might be quite a distance from the stage.  McBean’s van was the best of a very good set design with huge expanding cloth sections for the machine entries and exits.

The songs were catchy, and I found myself singing them under my breath at odd times for days afterward.  Though I thought they could’ve incorporated a bit more of the original book in terms of rhyming–especially the climactic page of the book where the sneetches are running in a steady stream from one machine to the other “on those wild screaming beaches”.

For the characters, McBean was the highlight of the bunch, hitting a very creepy and credible profiteer claiming to be a friend of the people while using their own prejudices for his own profit.  For the main two protagonists, I felt like with this more expanded Sneetch Beach that they filled out the prejudicial society of the sneetches quite a bit, but it felt less real to me because the segregation was so all-pervasive but did not seem to be enforced by anything.  This omission pointed out to me more starkly the odd choice of protagonists–a young star-belly girl wanders to the plain-belly side and starts hanging out with a grown plain-belly man without the knowledge of her parents or any other star-bellies.  If this was so easy to do, why hasn’t it happened before, especially with children?  Why isn’t the man gravely worried about the consequences about being seen with this?  I realize a Dr. Seuss children’s play is not going to involve a lynching, mind you, and thank goodness, but I was wondering why he wasn’t more worried about very harmful consequences.

All in all, it was a fun production, great set design, and carried the same worthwhile lessons of the original story.  The songs were catchy (if not as catchy as the original book) and it’s a fun play to take a kid to.  But I didn’t end up liking it as much as I was hoping I would in part because the expansion of the Sneetch Beach world brought up some plausibility concerns that the show never answered to my satisfaction.