Melissa Hazel Lowe is tailor-made to play the lead Cat in the Hat for Portal Players Dramatic Society’s latest production, Seussical the Musical. But if she hadn’t channeled her inner Theodor Geisel—Dr. Seuss’s real name—she never would have got the role.
Lowe, you see, was shy about singing in public—problematic if you are trying out for the lead in a musical.
“This is my first lead musical,” she says. “I’ve never been confident with my singing.”
So shy, in fact, that when she appeared in a pantomime a few years ago “there was a song my character had to sing and they ended up cutting it because I wouldn’t sing it.”
Even karaoke was a spectator sport for her, until she joined the Sea Notes choir and had a singing part in Wizard of Oz last year.
Lowe has been involved in theatre since she was six or seven, and has done a lot of behind-the-scenes work with Portal Players since she was in high school.
She took drama at Alberni District Secondary School under Kerry Robertson. “I really started getting onto the stage with (Portal’s) one-acts,” she said.
Lowe’s first big foray into stage work was playing Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest, which was a Portal Players’ North Island Zone Drama Festival submission in 2011.
(Now, Lowe is on the committee bringing the zone festival back to Port Alberni in May.)
She initially auditioned to be a bird girl in Seussical, a supporting part for Lisa Fryer’s Gertrude. “They called me and asked if I wanted to be the cat, and I said ‘OK, I’ll do it,’” she said.
“I’m trying to accept the challenges and get outside my bubble.”
There are no speaking parts—just singing—in the musical, which sold out opening night and both its matinees. Learning the timing to go with the music has been challenging, she added, because she doesn’t read music. “I was using my ears to go with the words I had on paper.”
Bringing personality to the stage version of The Cat in the Hat was fairly easy for Lowe, who grew up reading Dr. Seuss books and watching The Cat in the Hat on television.
“I’m really comfortable in it,” she says of the role. “I don’t feel like I really have to stretch too hard for that inspiration.”
Seussical artistic director Elliot Drew, who came into the picture midway through the production schedule, said the beauty of Seuss’s characters are they challenge the imagination, so actors can have a little fun with them. “People know Horton, people know the Cat, but to bring them to life on stage, you can have a little bit of fun,” he said.
“How do you bring a person to the stage who is an elephant? And most importantly, how do you make the Cat in the Hat come to life?
“Seuss was really great in creating these characters that embodied a sense of value; those values have to be in the forefront as you bring the characters to the stage,” he added.
Collaborating with costume designer Stephanie Fortin and her sisters, Jenny Fortin and Ellisha Cartlidge has spelled success in bringing the characters to life, Drew said.
That sort of teamwork has allowed the cast to gel both on and off the stage, producer Janet Deakin said.
Deakin has been reunited with three of the lead characters who all appeared in Suds together, while Drew is back for his second year as artistic director (he also led Wizard of Oz; he hasn’t been onstage himself since Greater Tuna with Peter Wienold.
John Kenchenten brought Seussical to life for Portal Players, and while he had to step back from his initial role, Deakin said Drew, musical director Janet Schlackl and band leader Sandy Bouleau and the other department heads have worked hard to prepare the cast.
Vocal rehearsals started back in September, but blocking didn’t begin until October. “Everybody’s been working hard and putting in so many hours.”
Now it’s all over but the performances. Seussical started Feb. 13 and runs Fridays Feb. 20 & 27 and March 6, and Saturdays Feb. 21 & 28 and March 7. Curtain call is 7:30 p.m. Sunday matinees are sold out. Tickets can be purchased at the Capitol Theatre box office, Rollin Art Centre or online at www.atthecapitol.org.