The green meanie has all the fun, but then he is the most entertaining thing about the show with an impossibly long title: "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! - The Musical."
This "Grinch" - to shorten things a bit - has been a regular crowd-pleaser for nine seasons at the Old Globe in San Diego and now a version has shown up in New York for the holidays, running through Jan. 7 at Broadway's cavernous Hilton Theatre.
The production is brief, less than 90 minutes, and appetizing to look at since set designer John lee Beatty's wonderful Whoville houses resemble gigantic Ice-cream sundaes. But because of some ho-hum new songs, It's also a bit bland except when the Grinch, a deliciously dyspeptic fellow with green fur, is front and center.
The Grinch is played by Patrick Page who earned his villain stripes by portraying Scar in the Broadway production of "The Lion King." Page has a robust voice, whether speaking and singing. What's more he seems to be enjoying himself and his enthusiasm and show-biz flash rub off on the production, whose color palette trends toward an excess of red and white. Just Christmasy or a nod perhaps to Target, its corporate sponsor?
The story, for those who somehow have never heard of Seuss, concerns a creature who hates Christmas, most likely because, as the good doctor's classic children book says, the Grinch's "heart was two sizes too small."
So he decides to spoil the holiday for all the residents of Who-ville by stealing the children's presents and just about everything else connected with the festivities. But darn, if he isn't stopped in his tracks by little Cindy lou Who. There's more to Christmas than getting gifts.
This stage version by Timothy Mason has to compete with the memory of the delightful TV animated version, which had Boris Karloff as narrator and was first shown in 1966. We won't talk about the 2000 Jim Carrey film adaptation.
Several musical numbers from television have been retained here - "Welcome, Christmas" and "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," and they still are the best songs in the show. The stage score, music by Mel Marvin and lyrics by Mason, is efficiently cheerful if not exactly memorable.
The Grinch's loyal canine companion, Max, is portrayed by Rusty Ross, who gets to perform the more athletic examples of John Deluca's spirited choreography. Some of the older Whos are impersonated by a group of reliable musical-theater performers including Kaitlin Hopkins, Michael McCormick and Jan Neuberger who are barely recognizable in their elaborate costumes and makeup.
And there is a narrator, too - an older version of Max played by the Tony-winning John Cullum, best known for his starring roles in such musicals as "Shenandoah" and "On the Twentieth Century." The actor gives yeoman support to this venerable tale celebrating the true meaning of Christmas.
It takes 10 minutes - max - to read "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" to a child. And that's allowing time to turn the pages of the sweet book with theatrical flourish, to pause for effect at everyone of Dr. Seuss' exclamation points and to accentuate, very slowly, all the words he chose to italicize in his versified holiday classic.
Before enduring the Broadway version of the little story, one assumed that some pretty spiffy additions would've had to be dreamed up to blow this slim volume into an 80-minute musical spectacular. One assumed wrong. "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! – The Musical" - yes, that's the graceless title - began its first Broadway holiday engagement at the roomy Hilton Theatre last night. One cannot imagine that New Yorkers and tourists will be clamoring to make this an annual holiday ritual.
The show arrives with credentials. For several seasons, this "Grinch" has been a favorite at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre. Jack O'Brien, the versatile wizard currently directing Tom Stoppard's massive "Coast of Utopia" at Lincoln Center, created this production for his Southern California playhouse. Word across the continent was charming - you know, "for audiences from 3 to 83.
Disney need not fear the thunder of hoofbeats ("presented by Target") over its shoulder. "Grinch's" constant repetitions of simpleton songs might work for a patient 3-year-old or a really sad 83-year-old, but those of us in the bigtent middle should find distraction elsewhere.
To plump up the thin story, this "Grinch" is framed as a memory play narrated by Old Max, the dog who served the ogre the night of the Christmas theft. What a pleasure to recognize the tangy voice and bemused presence of John Cullum inside the mangy suit with the big fluffy tail.
Cullum can do just about anything. One wishes he hadn't chosen to do it here. As narrator, he introduces Who village, populated by happy wobblewalking Who folk, dressed in Robert Morgan's candy-cane-colored, elfinfooted costumes with bouffant bellies and chemise knees.
He also introduces the Grinch, the big weedy green guy who lives "up in the ice and fog" with puppyish Young Max (Rusty Ross). The songs ask and tell us (with a "Who's on first?" lack of self-control) that "Who Likes Christmas?"
Then the Grinch, performed with mild ominousness and an ill-advised pelvic grind by Patrick Page, sings "I Hate Christmas Eve." The theme - Who likes Christmas/Grinch hates Christmas - is reprised over and over. Also, "Welcome, Christmas" and "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." Yes, there is a sing-along. Also, a confetti drop.
The sets, by no less a master than John Lee Beatty, integrate Dr. Seuss' cross-hatch drawing style with cottages that look like sugar cupcakes. A pair (of parents and a pair of grandparents are played by adults. Otherwise, enthusiastic child actors sing and dance.
Although the Grinch learns that "maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store/Maybe Christmas is a little bit more," merchandise is hawked in the lobby. A $40 hoody, little girl?
Eat your heart out, Ebenezer. There's a new holiday hum bugger in town. He's a mean, green, Who-hating machine.
"Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical" is based on the 1957 storybook by Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) about a grump who tries to ruin the holidays for his neighbors, the Whos, and learns a big lesson. The musical, which opened last night, expands the story a bit and manages to maintain much of its humor and pathos. At about 70 minutes, it's also kid-friendly.
Timothy Mason (book and lyrics) and Mel Marvin (music) tell the story as a flashback recalled by the Grinch's old pooch Max (John Cullum, who's classy, even with a tail). Rusty Ross is a sassy young Max, who's forced to aid his meanie master.
The role of Cindy Lou Who (Nicole Bocchi and Caroline London alternate in the part) has grown. In the book she's "not more than 2." She's about 10 here, and belts the sweet - if a bit too sugary - "Santa for a Day" to teach the Grinch about Christmas. There are six more new songs. All are serviceable, If not exactly Seussian, and move the story along.
The show includes familiar songs from the 1966 TV version of "The Grinch," including "Welcome, Christmas," the Whos' holiday anthem, and the tune many people can't wait to hear, "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," the delectably witty ditty by Dr. Seuss and Albert Hague. Both Maxes perform it, as the Grinch gleefully ransacks Whoville. (The audience also briefly gets to sing along.) The familiar songs come off surprisingly well as staged by director Matt August.
In a green shag-carpet body suit and matching makeup, Patrick Page is a great Grinch. He plays it with just enough bark and bite. When he struts, slinks and soft-shoes (soft-paws?) through the intentionally show-offy "One of a Kind," an ode to the Grinch's loner status, he conjures everyone from Captain Hook to Mama Rose.
The production's chief asset is its design, inspired by the book's illustrations, which were done only in shades of black, white and red. Robert Morgan's eye-popping white, pink and red costumes are pure whimsy, head to toe. (If some curlicues on Whowear look like bull's-eyes, it may have to do with the show's sponsor - Target. Who knows?)
John Lee Beatty's sets of Who homes, the Grinch's lair and Whoville from a distance are just as ingenious. The show's most high-flying effect creates the Grinch's late-night sleigh ride with reluctant "reindeer" Max. Such a fun, theatrical moment makes the show a real Whoot.
The barometer may beg to differ, but the holiday season is officially here. Wal-Mart tells us so. Seasonal discounts began on Saturday, in case you hadn't heard. Time to defrost the turkey, dust off the ornaments and get out the wallet.
Wal-Mart's rival Target, meanwhile, is kick-starting the festive rites on New York stages by presenting an adaptation of the Dr. Seuss classic "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" on Broadway. The musical opened last night at the Hilton Theater, spreading the story's warm corrective message that the spirit of Christmas resides not in the act of acquisition but in the holding of hands and the raising of voices in communal cheer.
That this edifying bit of wisdom is now being promulgated by a retail giant is just one of the merry paradoxes of our age. Perhaps the vendors flogging $20 Grinch dolls in the theater's aisles were doing so with tongues in cheek. I didn't get close enough to see.
For anyone under the age of 45, or for that matter anyone with children under the age of 45, the television adaptation of the Dr. Seuss book is probably a beloved cultural touchstone. I confess it is for me.
Back in the days before DVDs the annual crop of Christmas specials were looked forward to by children as a savory, spine-tingling prelude to the holiday itself. The "Grinch" special, created by Dr. Seuss (a k a Theodor Geisel) and the brilliant animator Chuck Jones, is the wittiest and most charming of the lot (with honorable mention going to "A Charlie Brown Christmas" of course). If there is a more wholly satisfying half-hour of entertainment to be had in our dark world, I'd like to know what it is.
The movie industry's attempt to capitalize on its enduring appeal, on the other hand, only proved how easily the material's charm could be despoiled by bloat and vulgarity. The Jim Carrey movie released a few years ago is weirdly nauseating, with its borderline nasty jokes and creepy-looking Whoville denizens, who all seemed to have gone under the knife of the same sadistic plastic surgeon.
At about 90 minutes the stage version suffers from a milder case of bloat. A tale that fit neatly into 26 televised minutes - to say nothing of a couple hundred lines of rhymed verse - inevitably feels protracted at thrice the length. It is considerably more faithful to the spirit and letter of the original material than the movie was, however, and so more pleasing.
It was initially "created and supervised" by Jack O'Brien, the versatile director whose current projects include (a Puccini opera at the Met and Lincoln Center Theater's holiday extravaganza for highbrows, Tom Stoppard's "Coast of Utopia" trilogy. Matt August directed this version, which features a stocking full of serviceable new show tunes with lyrics by Timothy Mason, who also wrote the Seussian rhymed book, and music by Mel Marvin.
Rest easy, Grinch-o-philes: the two immortal tunes from the television special, by Albert Hague and Dr. Seuss, are given prominent placement, with the mordant "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" used in a brief sing-along segment. The chorus is led by John Cullum, the Broadway veteran who narrates the show with crusty friendliness as Old Max, the Grinch's unwilling canine accomplice, looking back on the misadventures of his youth. Rusty Ross plays the Young Max of indentured servitude and the sad lone reindeer horn.
The sets by John Lee Beatty carefully mimic Dr. Seuss's signature style, with the huts of the Whos looking like cupcakes with melted frosting. Such fidelity is appreciated, but I'm not sure it was necessary for the costume designer, Robert Morgan, to accentuate so boldly (as the movie also did) the nonhuman nature of the Who species. The shape-shifting results suggest the more adventurous collections of Japanese fashion designers, incongruously sewn not in severe shades of gray and black but in candy-cane colors.
The lively whole seemed to please the legions of critics in the audience who really matter here, the 10-and-unders, who hardly stirred in their seats during those 90 minutes. That can confidently be taken as a sign of satisfaction, or at least contented distraction.
One exception was a the little girl who let out a long, soulful wail shortly after the Grinch, played with gargoyle-ish glee by Patrick Page, slunk onstage. In her defense I must say I shared a little of her discomfort. Covered as he was in skanky green fur, with Kabuki makeup turning his features vaguely feline, this Grinch brought to my mind an unhappy encounter with a road company of "Cats" in San Francisco I thought I'd expunged from memory. I almost started wailing myself.
Mr. Page soon won me over with his slyly epicene performance, which owes a modest debt to Tim Curry's delicious Dr. Frank-N-Furter from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." The Grinch's razzle-dazzle ode to his own specialness, "One of a Kind," written and staged as a takeoff on the glittering climax of Broadway's current "Chicago" (or so I imagine), and performed in front of a curtain of green tinsel, was the show's musical highlight for me.
Later, as the tenderhearted Cindy Lou Who prepared to sing her big solo number, Mr. Page growled out the evening's most appealing line, at least for the saccharin-averse adults in the audience. As tinkling strains of a distinctly sentimental nature stirred from the orchestra pit, Mr. Page turned to the audience and growled most grinchily, "Oh, it's a ballad!"
And what a ballad. "Santa for a Day," the song in question, makes that syrupy anthem from "Annie" that I hardly need to name seem like a paean to pessimism in comparison. I will spare you the lyrics. When Cindy Lou followed it up with a confidence-building pep talk with the Grinch that began to resemble an actual therapy session in both length and tone, my patience began to weaken.
But oh dear. I'd better stop right there. It may be my imagination, but as I type these words I seem to see green fur sprouting from the backs of my hands.
Considering that the Hilton Theater lobby is bursting with tie-in merchandise, it's ironic that "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical" retains the book's moral that Christmas isn't about presents at all. However, this is hardly the first show to profit from the idea that materialism is wrong, and as mixed messages go, it's entertaining. Buoyed by gorgeous design and a saucy star turn from Patrick Page, "The Grinch" likely will satisfy family crowds in search of holiday spectacle.
Those seeking a memorable book and songs will be disappointed, however. The strongest material comes from Seuss, who uses his famously clever rhyming couplets to explain how a furry meanie tries to ruin Christmas for a group of elfin villagers called the Whos.
Just as it does in the 1966 cartoon, the good doctor's language tickles the ear. Who else could say things like, "He cleaned out their icebox as quick as a flashlWhy, that Grinch even took their last can of Who hash?"
The chatm of Seuss' lines only amplifies the awkwardness of Timothy Mason's book and lyrics. Tacking on a frame story -- the entire show is narrated by Old Max (John Cullum), the grown-up version of the Grinch's pooch sidekick -- and some strained comic business, Mason writes as if he's distracted. He shows little regard for meter, and he rhymes words like "beneath" with "leash" or "wrap it" with "jacket."
New plot points also are shaky. Mason introduces a bevy ofWhos, but most are less than one-note. All we know about Cindy Lou Who is that she's lispy and angelic, while Grandpa is deaf and little brother Boo is, um, a boy.
The story obviously needed more characters to fill out 65 minutes, but Mason might have done better to fully develop a few Whos than to write so many flat archetypes.
Cullum and Rusty Ross, as Young Max, also are handed limp roles. Cullum seems disinterested, but Ross invests his single objective -- to be good-naturedly miffed at the Grinch's cruelty -- with physical energy. Bounding and tumbling, he's the kind of puppy you want to scratch behind the ears.
The script gives more meat to the Grinch, whose villainy is now self-righteous. In "One of a Kind" – the only new song to approach the cartoon's anthems "Welcome, Christmas" and "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," both included here -- he declares how proud he is to be the lone member of his species. Page makes it a showstopper: Selling every high-kick and standing before a shimmering green curtain, he declares his superiority like a children's book Velma Kelly.
But Page is too clever to make the Grinch a campy bitch. More accurately, he's a cad, charming even when he's scaring kids in the audience. Sighing with delight, he says, "I love it when the little ones cry."
Director Matt August (following the template of Jack O'Brien's original production from San Diego's Old Globe) is hell-bent on keeping the little ones occupied. He makes most scenes loud and busy, as though afraid tots will lose interest. But while it may be shrill, August's mania seems to work. At the perf reviewed, tykes stayed largely attentive.
Both for John Lee Beatty's sets and Robert Morgan's costumes drew aud "oohs." Designers use the eye-popping palette of cartoons, and their clothes and props are jokily oversized.
Beatty particularly copies Seuss' inked illustrations, making all the Who houses look like cutouts from a book. In a funny recurring bit, he shows the perspective from the top of Mt. Crumpit, where the Grinch glares down on Whoville, by sliding on miniature cottages filled with Michael Curry's wee Who puppets.
Those flourishes will give parents enough to ogle, even if their minds wander from the story. In the end, everyone may be happy enough to join the show-closing sing-along before heading to the lobby to buy a collectible doll.