Like, for instance, the animated Dr. Suess classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas. We saw what the likes of Jim Carrey did with the successful film version. But when I had heard that it was now a musical, I imagined it summarily ruined by treacle-y tunage, overwrought orchestrations, ridiculous hydraulics, and precociously prancing “Broadway Babies” (sort of like the monstrosity I was forced to sit through last Christmas – check out the KDHX archives). I was prepared to scrub my brain with a cheese grater to save Christmas for myself. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the beautiful, brand-spankin’ new Peabody Opera House (yes, formally Kiel) for the delightful, relatively understated National Tour of Dr. Suess’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas the Musical, produced by Big League Productions and Running Subway.
Turns out the Peabody, was the perfect space for this show – a smaller proscenium stage than either the Muny or Fox, so you feel you get an immediate, intimate theater experience, but not so small that The Grinch crew couldn’t whip out some good-looking set pieces, and special effects.
I was gonna skip the show summary (we’ve all seen the original), but since there are a few liberties that were taken in order to turn a 22 minute animated-show into a tight 85 or so minute musical, of course, I feel I must point them out. It’s still Christmastime in Whoville; the Whos still love Christmas, join hands to sing in a circle and look forward to their roast beast; the hairy, green Grinch is still a “Mean One” and contrives to steal Christmas; and his heart’s still “two sizes too small” but grows after encountering lovable little Cindy Lou Who. So not many of the original plot points are left out. Here’s what’s been added by the writers: The story is now basically narrated in flashback by Old Max, the Grinch’s dog, who was there, and therefore a credible eyewitness. The parts of Cindy Lou’s parents and grandparents are fleshed out, and we hear from the citizens of Whoville a little more. Most notably, and more crucial to the story, however, is the addition of nine or so new songs (and several reprises of those), most of them giving us further insight into Whoville, and specifically, the Grinch, Young Max, Old Max and little Cindy Lou.
The performers, most of who’ve performed this show either on Broadway or on last years’ tour are all winsome, lively, and look like they’re having fun. I never sensed a flagging of enthusiasm once from any of them – I truly believe they love Whoville! The ensemble sings and dances with tunefulness and spirit, and I highly commend that. Sometimes the chorus isn’t given enough credit in a musical, and this one works pretty well. Ryan Knowles and Rebecca Prescott as Grandpa and Grandma Who, give solid support in these beefed-up roles (although, I was a little dismayed and confused that the writers chose to let Grandpa be a little greedy in the number “It’s the Thought That Counts”. I suppose somebody had to, so the number would make sense, but it was kind of jarring. They could’ve picked another Who-Villean). Brance Cornelius and Serena Brook as Papa and Mama Who, are sweet & winning. Each of them has a lovely singing voice that they get to show off in a couple of numbers, although sometimes Papa looked and seemed a little young for the role. Seth Bazacus as Young Max has the unenviable task of having to act in two dimensions at once, if you think about it. He has to act both “in the moment” with the Grinch in the flashbacks, but also has to be aware of what and how Old Max narrates, and react to that. He handles both more than admirably. He has very good comic timing, a very nice singing voice, and moves well. Bob Lauder as Old Max is both charming and full of gravitas, a melodious speaking voice complimenting his rich singing voice. Although the part is double-cast, on the evening I saw the show, young Bailey Ryon (I believe, for I didn’t hear an announcement) played little Cindy Lou Who. This girl is a little powerhouse. No wonder the Grinch’s heart grows “three sizes that day”. A “very little girl with a very big singing voice” - watch out for this girl! (By the way, those are the very words I said about another relatively unknown young woman, when I reviewed a revival that was doing it’s pre-Broadway tryout here in 1998. She later won the Tony for that role - in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Her name: Kristin Chenowith. There. There’s your pull quote for a couple of years, Bailey!)
But however much we may love Cindy Lou Who, it’s the “Mean One” himself that we come to see, and Stefan Karl, as the Grinch does not disappoint. Bringing a slimy physicality, a crooked, charming smile, and a little more gleeful malice to the role than I had expected (and, yes, I appreciated that, and so did the kids), Karl slinks and slouches through the Grinch, calculatingly undulating hairy green fingers as he plots and plans a way to ruin Christmas for Whoville. Karl played it up for evil laughs (thankfully, not quite as much as Carrey, but just enough), and I was actually impressed that he was allowed to improv in quite a few places – and those interactions with the audience were, frankly, some of the best moments in the show. It’s not often that a character as thoroughly rotten as the Grinch gets such a loving give-and-take with a young audience, so Karl takes full advantage of that, amping up the kiddies whenever he can, and to the betterment of the show.
Books and Lyrics by Timothy Mason and Music by Mel Marvin serve the story well – but unfortunately no one is Dr. Suess, so although some of the new rhyme schemes were clever, for the most part the book seemed written mainly to get us to the parts we already know well, and the new music stands pretty unmemorable next to the classics (the “additional music and lyrics by Albert Hague and Dr. Suess” – God, that makes me laugh really hard) that remain in the show. Direction by Matt August was clear, focused and not too busy (as can be a problem, dealing with 24 actors). He kept the fun-o-meter set on pretty high, and his sure touch never let it get either boring or out-of-hand, and I think that’s pretty artful, in this type of show. My favorite part was, of course, “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” (which is now a trio with the Grinch, Old Max, and Young Max”), with Young Max running around like crazy catching all of the packages that the Grinch is stealing. Choreography by Bob Richard (based on the original by John Deluca) was simple & cheerful (meaning, of course, that it was probably harder than it looks), and sound by Michael H.P. Viveros & Colle Bustin and musical direction by Adam McDonald made everyone sound wonderful, from top to bottom – one of the better mixed shows I’ve heard in a while! The set, by John Lee Bailey, in a way, made the show for me. I was expecting some overbuilt, overpriced piece of “stabbing-me-in-the-eyeballs-with-its-Broadway-iness” crap, but Whoville looked exactly like what Whoville looked like to me when I was 6 years old, watching television. There was no attempt to make it look like anything more than a cardboard-cutout-town, and I LOVED that (although I couldn’t believe that another entire set was built exclusively for the curtain call)! Lighting by Pat Collins and Lauren Phillips complimented that set well, adding floods of color when needed (although, they really seem to love the red and pink). I suspect that the Special Effects designed by Gregory Meeh, are responsible for a good portion of the evening’s magic. Whether it’s the beautiful opening snow flurries at the beginning, the flight of the Grinch’s sleigh on his way to rip off Whoville (ironic, considering the stories we’ve gotten here in the news lately), the sight of his heart growing “three sizes that day” or the massive snow fall on the first six rows of the audience at the end, we only drawn more into the story, by these splendid, clever effects.
All of this is the long drawn out way to say that:
If you love Christmas (even like it, at least)
And you’d feast on Who-Pudding and rare Who-roast beast
See How the Grinch Stole Christmas – it’s clearly a ball
Happy Who-liday greetings, to one and to all!
How the Grinch Stole Christmas the Musical continues at The Peabody Opera House now thru Dec. 18th. For tickets or more information, visit www.PeabodyOperaHouse.com, or call Ticketmaster at 1-800-745-3000.