A musical mashup of Dr. Seuss’ beloved children’s stories is coming to the Amesbury stage this weekend.
The Amesbury Children’s Theatre will fire up imaginations with its production of “Seussical Jr.,” featuring a cast of 50 kids ages 4 to 18.
The tale is centered around the classics “Horton Hears a Who!” and “Horton Hatches the Egg.” Told by the famous Cat in the Hat, it follows Horton the Elephant, who has discovered a tiny, nearly invisible speck of dust shouting something that he alone can hear. Horton catches the speck on a flower and discovers that it is a microscopic world, home to the Whos of Whoville.
While other jungle creatures harangue and harass him for his new “imaginary” friends, Horton vows to protect the tiny world and declares, “A person’s a person, no matter how small!”
Along the way, the audience meets characters from all over the Seuss canon, from the Grinch to Yertle the Turtle to birds Gertrude McFuzz and Maysie.
This production marks the first time that a student director, Amesbury High School senior Augie Vesely, is taking the helm of an Amesbury Children’s Theatre production.
Vesely is a longtime friend and supporter of company owner Michelle Spadafora. The two have worked together for eight years, beginning when she was director of the Amesbury Summer Youth Program.
Vesely was also the one who proposed “Seussical,” which Spadafora had never seen. She sees having a teenage director as a natural extension of her mission to teach young people all aspects of the theatrical trade.
“I wanted ACT to be not just something for the production’s sake, but I wanted it to be a learning experience for people,” she said. “So I thought, ‘What better way for kids who want to take a role within the company than to allow them to direct?’”
The transition hasn’t been entirely smooth, Spadafora admitted, as they have had to find a balance between her suggestions and Vesely’s creative vision.
“What we do is, we compromise,” Spadafora said. “I think the decisions he makes, if they’re not what I would do and it’s because of inexperience, then he’s willing to compromise at that point. If it’s something more creative, it’s his interpretation of the show, so I have to leave it up to him.”
The challenge, she said, is to “guide him without taking over.” And for his part, he’s using the time to take risks with a “safety net.”
“Michelle is really letting me learn how to respond to actors and giving me the independence to explore,” he said. “There have been a few times when I’ve made mistakes, but they really work with me.”
Vesely plans to use the experience as a springboard into more acting and directing in college. He hopes to study performing arts at Salem State University, where he would be close enough to home to continue collaborating with Spadafora and the children’s theater.
Vesely isn’t the only person “learning by doing” in the company. Middle and high school students are drafted into lighting, set construction and stage management. And younger kids get the opportunity to boost their confidence in an unfamiliar environment.
Carla Censullo saw her child go through just such a transformation. Her first-grade daughter, Shyann, is struggling with a learning disability: She has a difficult time reading, writing and memorizing.
Before signing up for the Amesbury Children’s Theatre, she even refused bedtime stories, shouting, “Enough, enough, enough!” whenever her mom tried to read to her.
That all changed once she got onstage.
“Memorization-wise and reading and feeling part of a group, this Amesbury Children’s Theatre has helped her so much,” said Censullo, an Amesbury resident. “When we go to pick her up, she’s so full of herself and full of confidence. She can read her lines, she can do this, she’s changed so much.”
Other parents have had similar experiences: Kellyn Nahas’ two children both made it through a “terrifying” audition to get roles as extras, only to find themselves wrapped up in the songs and loving the stage.
Now, Natalie, 12, is singing the music in their Amesbury home, and Hannah, 8, has already decided to audition for the next production.
“They just wanted to be involved, and they love it,” Nahas said. “So not only do they know all the songs by heart, but so do I.”
If you go
What: “Seussical Jr.”
When: Tomorrow at 7 p.m., Saturday at 1 and 6 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Saturday’s evening performance is part of a Kids Pajama Party, which starts at 5 and includes a meet-and-greet with the cast, a popcorn bar, games and prizes.
Where: Sparhawk School theater, 196 Main St., Amesbury
How much: $10 general admission, $15 for limited reserved seating. The Kids Pajama Party is $15, though parents can attend for free if they bring in a children’s book to donate to charity.