Though syrupy, long, 'Grinch' will steal kids' hearts

theater review

November 16, 2008|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,

It's a well-established axiom that theater critics have hearts that are three sizes too small. How else could we skewer productions that folks in the audience - including the 5-year-old sitting on my lap - wholeheartedly enjoy?

Such is the quandary facing this reviewer of the first national tour of D r. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which launched Thursday at the Hippodrome Theatre.

Aspects of this holiday production that faithfully re-create the beloved children's book and television program - the scenery, costumes and special effects - as well as Stefan Karl's performance as the Grinch, are superb. But, the plot is as stuffed with fillers as the Christmas roast beast.

There's a real argument to be made (and Jack O'Brien, who conceived of this production, has made it), that the Grinch is America's classic holiday story. The book succeeds in part because Theodor Geisel was wrestling with a genuine dilemma when he wrote it.

I've always suspected that the Grinch is based on the author himself. The character's complaints about the holiday - Too much noise! Too much commotion! Too much fuss, and too much stuff! - are the complaints of the cranky middle-aged. The clincher: in the story, the green furball mutters to himself, "Why, for fifty-three years I've put up with it now!"

The good Doctor was born in 1904, and the book was published in 1957.

In the decade after Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946), it must have seemed positively unpatriotic to wish in print that Christmas might just go away. But, then came Geisel's little fable. Other grown-ups came out of the closet and confessed to the same, dark secret, and the Grinch became firmly entrenched in popular culture.

This production is at its best when it hews as closely as possible to the original storyline. John Lee Beatty's set and Robert Morgan's costumes - both of which reproduce Geisel's original pen-and-ink drawings - are marvels of ingenuity.

For instance, instead of fingers, the Grinch has excruciatingly long and pointed talons, which from time to time, appear from behind the red curtain, to enjoyably scary effect.

The scene in which the mutt Max, antlers tied onto his head, pulls the Grinch's sleigh down Mount Crumpet is a delightful mixture of high and low-tech theater tricks; actors holding large, cut-out "trees" run past the tableau, creating the illusion that it is the sleigh, and not they, who are moving.

The final feast that the Grinch prepares for the residents of Whoville also made me smile: The tabletop is intentionally aslant, re-creating the perspective of a child viewing the illustration in a book.

And, at the very end, it "snows" over the audience sitting in the first several rows of the theater. The effect is magical.

The problem with Geisel's story from a theatrical perspective is that there isn't enough of it. The book itself has less than 1,400 words. The television program lasts 26 minutes. But, to justify the costly special effects - not to mention $70 ticket prices - the producers apparently felt they had to expand the stage show to 80 minutes, the current running time.

That's a lot of bread crumbs and chopped apple.

Some of Timothy Mason's added dialogue captures Geisel's rhythms and enhances the themes. Unfortunately, the narrative tension gets lost amid all the garnishes.

For instance, do we really need to see the adult Whos on a pre-Christmas shopping spree, singing the eminently forgettable It's the Thought That Counts?

The show does contain the two most memorable numbers from the television show, You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch (and the sing-along segment is a nice touch) and Welcome Christmas.

The strongest of the new numbers is the Grinch's soft-shoe solo, One of a Kind, delivered with comic panache by Karl. The performer, star of the Nickelodeon show LazyTown, has been called "the Icelandic Jim Carrey." It's easy to forget that physical comics are skilled athletes, but one segment serves as a welcome reminder. As the Grinch steals the Whos' gifts, Karl soccer-kicks each wrapped package across the room, and Andrew Keenan-Bolger (Young Max) catches each parcel in a bag before it hits the ground.

It's the best duet of the evening, a masterly display of timing and teamwork.

Walter Charles displays a hard-won dignity and stentorian baritone as Old Max. Aaron Galligan-Stierle (Papa Who) and Jacquelyn Piro Donovan (Mama Who) have especially lovely voices; it's a shame they don't get more of an opportunity to showcase them.

Finally, young Lexie DeBlasio (Cindy Lou in the red cast) possesses a set of startlingly big pipes for such a small child - though they unfortunately are put to the service of the treacly Santa for a Day.

But, perhaps I'd better quit while I'm ahead. My talons are growing, and they're making it hard to type.

If you go

Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas runs through Nov. 23 at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St. Show times: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 5 p.m., 8 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 5 p.m., 8 p.m. Saturdays and 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 5 p.m. Sundays. $25-$70. 410-547-7328 or

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