The characters created by children’s book writer Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, are so imaginative, whimsical and famous that they exist in a reality all their own. That bounty of imagination, however, can present a tricky challenge for any theater company eager to turn those loraxes and cats in hats into engaging and believable stage characters.
The Music Circus has stepped up by recruiting designer extraordinaire Richard Bay, the locally based, internationally renowned puppet master and theatrical designer. He has created 15 puppets as well as scenic design for the company’s production of “Seussical,” a musical homage to Seuss that opens July 12.
Giant fish, birds and other Bay creations populate the Seussian world around the human actors, intimately blending fantastical creatures into the production.
“I try to pull Richard into everything we do,” said Scott Klier, the Music Circus executive producer who first worked with Bay several years ago while re-imagining the “Tevye’s Dream” sequence in the company’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“We wanted to do it with puppets and asked Richard to do it. What he brought to the table was so creative and so inspired, it really transformed that scene,” Klier said.
Bay grew up in Minnesota in a household filled with puppets. Both his mother and grandmother were puppeteers hired to put on shows as part of the federal Works Progress Administration during the Depression. As a youth he became fascinated with bunraku, an emotionally intense, stylized form of Japanese puppet theater founded in Osaka in 1684. He didn’t see bunraku live until he was a teenager in Northern California and a company came to San Francisco.
“It just blew me away,” Bay said. “They’re very realistic, but it’s a stylized movement. There’s an energy they get from those puppets that is very emotional to the point that you can cry.”
The retired California State University, Sacramento, theater professor has since been sharing those talents and experiences with a wide range of audiences.
Even as Bay and his crew put the finishing touches on the Music Circus puppets, he’s been at work with one of his ongoing signature projects: designing California State Fair county exhibits that have earned him a devoted cult following over the past 40 years. His dioramas goes on display from Friday, July 8, to July 24 for Amador, Calaveras, Placer, Sacramento, Solano, Sonoma and Tuolumne counties.
“The way his mind works is not exclusive to puppets,” Klier said. “Richard is creatively firing on all cylinders all the time.”
On stage, Bay, an experienced theater director, intimately understands how successful productions come together. Klier said Bay often comes up with ideas for how the puppets can interact and what elements should be introduced to complement them.
Bay said he’s both fond of and familiar with the inspiration for “Seussical.” He directed the work at CSUS, but that production was designed for a proscenium stage. Music Circus, of course, is in the round.
“I’ve added more puppets than we had in that production,” Bay said. “It’s a very heavily choreographed show, and I really like the music. It’s a very cute show.”
While Bay researches his projects exhaustively, he said Seuss was relatively easy.
“You’ve got all these books, but a lot of his stuff doesn’t have a lot of color. They’re pastels, but that’s how people perceive Dr. Seuss,” Bay said.
For additional inspiration, Bay looked to an interactive attraction, Seuss Landing, at Univeral’s Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, Fla., which features rides based on Seuss characters and worlds.
The musical was written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (the pair wrote both “Ragtime” and “Once on This Island”). The primary sources are “Horton Hears a Who!” along with “Horton Hatches the Egg” and the short story “Miss Gertrude McFuzz,” although elements of at least 17 other Seuss books are layered into the stage production’s songs and story.
The cast boasts noteworthy actors including Jason Graae as the Cat In the Hat, Sharon Wilkins as Sour Kangaroo (which she originated in the Broadway production of “Seussical”), John Treacy Egan as Horton the Elephant, Ginifer King as Mayzie LaBird, and Bets Malone as Gertrude McFuzz. Tim Dugan, a former professor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, who now lives in Nevada City, is the production co-designer, and Kara Ow, a former student of Bay’s at CSUS, is the co-puppet designer.
“The thing I like most is the collaboration, Bay said. “Scott is a wonderful theater person – he has a great eye for what will work and what won’t.”
Bay’s puppets will be operated by dancers choreographed by Bob Richard, and that creative collaboration forms an essential partnership for the production.
“What I love is working with dancers,” Bay said. “They know how their body moves and they can translate that movement into the puppets.”
Richard said the pleasure of integrating puppets with live actors is mutual.
“The fun is in taking those puppets and making them come to life,” Richard said. “Making them a part of the story, making them breathe so they’re just not puppets who are moving around but they are an integral part of the story and the life of the play.”
A Music Circus veteran, Richard came to Sacramento extra early to work with Bay and Ow on the puppets’ movements before choreographing his dancers. He also spent time with the puppets on his own.
“Until I had those puppets in my hands, I couldn’t create this piece,” Richard said. “The dancers are going to come in, and I’m going to say, ‘Here’s your puppet, let’s create this world together.’ ”
What: The Music Circus production of the show by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. With Jason Graae, Sharon Wilkins, John Treacy Egan, Ginifer King and Bets Malone. Glenn Casale directs, Bob Richard choreographs, with puppets and set design by Richard Bay.
When: 7:30 p.m. July 12-July 16; also 2 p.m. Thursday, July 14, and Saturday, July 16; and 3 p.m. July 17
Where: Wells Fargo Pavilion, 1419 H St., Sacramento
Tickets: $45 - $88. Tickets cost $40 in any section for children 4-12 years old. Children under the age of 4 (including babes in arms) will not be admitted to the theater.