How do you pack up a Broadway musical and take it on the road?
You get a really, really big suitcase.
The first national tour of Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! officially opens tonight at the Hippodrome Theatre (after two preview performances), when a cast of two-dozen performers shuffles across the stage in red, pointy-toed Who shoes.
Putting together the $4 million national tour in Charm City requires nine semi-trailer trucks, a stage-floor-to-ceiling tree with star hung askew, a realistic rendition of Mount Crumpet with a sleigh full of presents teetering at the top, and catwalks full of confetti "snow."
"Most of us remember the very first time someone took us to the theater," says Jack O'Brien, who conceived of the production, which has the blessing of Seuss' widow, Audrey Geisel.
"I thought that if I could give a child his or her first viable theatrical experience, and load into it every kind of craft we know how to do, the child will never forget that night. So, the show has puppets and snow, and smoke, and people flying through the air.
"Once we knew what we wanted, we just had to figure out how to make it light, packable and move effortlessly."
Oh, is that all?
O'Brien initially created Grinch in 1998 for the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, where he was artistic director. (If his name sounds familiar, it's because he later oversaw the Broadway debut of another stage musical dear to the hearts of Baltimoreans - Hairspray.)
"The Old Globe was looking for a holiday show," O'Brien says. "Most troupes do A Christmas Carol. But Dickens was British. A Christmas Carol is wonderful, but it's not American. The Grinch is our Christmas story."
The musical is based on the beloved 1957 children's book about the green meanie with the heart "two sizes too small" who hatches a diabolical plot to spoil the Whos' holiday. Though the musical includes two songs from the 1966 animated television program (including the classic, "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,") the creative team wanted to make the stage version resemble the storybook as much as possible.
So, the show curtain that will sweep back from the Hippodrome stage has the same pattern as the endpapers in the book. The costumes - in the original color palette of black, white, pink and red - have dark "outlines" designed to make three-dimensional bodies appear two-dimensional - just like the original drawings.
(The one concession to television is the color of the G-man himself. In the book he is - horror of horrors - merely a black-and-white line drawing. No child today would ever accept such a heresy. So, the stage Grinch is the precise hue of the TV Grinch - the pea shade associated with jealousy - and money.)
Shortly after O'Brien's production made it to Broadway in 2006, the creative team began planning how to reconfigure the show for a tour. Some effects that work just fine when a show hunkers down and remains in the same building for months on end are impossible to duplicate on the road, when the show visits halls ranging from 2,000 to 3,000 seats with vastly different backstage configurations.
"For instance, there is a Christmas tree that appears several times in the story," O'Brien says.
"On Broadway, we had a mechanized deck, and the tree could appear as if by magic. But the deck was much too expensive and complicated to lug around. So what did we do? On the tour, we put the Christmas tree in a red Dr. Seuss wagon, and the characters pull it on stage. It's the cutest thing you've ever seen."
Boris Karloff provided the memorable voice of television's Grinch, and Patrick Page played the role on Broadway. On the tour, Stefan Karl, star of the Nickelodeon TV series, LazyTown, snagged the part. Karl has been referred to as "the Icelandic Jim Carrey," because of his extraordinarily elastic features and vast appetite for clowning; indeed, the actor seemingly can't even drink a glass of water without squinching his mouth up nearly into his eyebrows for comic effect.
The role of the Grinch requires so much gymnastics, and the costume (a padded foam pod covered by thick fur) is so hot, that Karl loses weight each time he performs. It's enough of a problem - and heat stroke is enough of a possibility - that the costume designers added several hidden pockets to the get-up, alongside Karl's waist and neck.
"There are like 400 lights in my face," Karl says. "I really sweat. Every time I go offstage, my dresser pulls open my costume and puts bags of ice in my pockets to cool me off. I probably go through six bags during each performance."
Karl and his wife have three little girl Whos and one little boy Who - ages 13, 7, 18 months and 6 months - and he admits that his performance honors a request made by his two eldest daughters.
"I can do an especially loud belch," he says. "Briet and Elin asked me to do it in the show. Every time I make that noise, I think of them."