BWW Reviews: THE GRINCH Stage Musical Offers Fun, Kid-Friendly Theatrics
I'd have to be, well... a mean ol' Grinch to say anything remotely negative about the new non-equity touring stage production of DR. SEUSS' HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS! THE MUSICAL, so I'll try my best to keep it to a minimum. Honestly though, it's really not that hard, actually, because---surprise---the show, for the most part, is an honest-to-goodness adorable little musical with lots of kid-friendly comedy and a feel-good holiday message that really softens even the hardest of cynics. And yes, even I myself found my heart growing three sizes during the course of the show's smile-inducing opening night performance at Costa Mesa's Segerstrom Center for the Arts (it continues here for a brief run through December 14).
Sure, the show isn't exactly the pinnacle of musical theater excellence, nor does it even attempt to be (though, it is quite a step up from your run-of-the-mill theme park stage show). But what it lacks in roof-raising, show-stopping splendor, it makes up for ten-fold in pure pluck---the kind that kids, especially, will eat right up like candy. And speaking of candy, the visuals themselves are a sweet treat---courtesy of cartoonish sets by John Lee Beatty and colorfully billowing costumes by Robert Morgan. From the exaggerated shapes, to the darling hand-drawn quality of the flat, illustration backdrops, everything about the production suggests a Seuss book being blown up to life-size... humps, scratches, and all.
Based on the much-beloved Dr. Seuss story---and the even more infamous 1966 Chuck Jones/Warner Bros. cartoon short it spawned---THE GRINCH is definitely a musical targeted for kids' enjoyment; and if their parents and/or older, nostalgia-baited counterparts happen to find some charm in it, well, the show has already done its job. And at a running time of 90 intermission-less minutes, the stage adaptation does provide enough to satisfy both extremes of the age spectrum: it's long enough to justify a stage musical's ticket price, yet short enough to keep even the most ornery of young kids mystified for its entire duration.
To aid in the expansion of the familiar short story into a full-fledged stage musical, Timothy Mason provides new book and lyrics to accompany original music penned by Mel Marvin (the ubiquitous title song and other incidental music written by Dr. Seuss and Albert Hague from the cartoon short have been smartly integrated into the production as well). While the newer songs certainly have their own appeal, they're mostly forgettable, save for "It's The Thought That Counts" and "This Time Of Year." The real draw of the score, of course, is the popular "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch," which gets milked for all its worth, and rightly so (it even becomes an interactive audience sing-along at one point).
In addition, the stage adaptation is now narrated as a flashback by the Grinch's once-enslaved pooch companion Max, now a very old dog played by the deep-voiced cuddly bear Bob Lauder. Like a grandfather relaying a story to his grandchildren, Old Max recalls the time when his younger self (played by the adorkable, sweet-voiced Andreas Wyder) lived in a cave hidden high atop Mount Crumpit with his master, the Grinch (played with over-the-top, cantankerous gusto by Stefan Karl).
Perpetually crabby and bitter, the Grinch---covered in head-to-toe green mohair---is continually annoyed by the merry mirth that echoes from the happy-peppy residents of Whoville down below. With evil in his "two sizes too small" of a heart, the Grinch decides to steal away all the yuletide accoutrements from the Whoville-ians disguised as Santa Claus, in a wicked attempt to stop Christmas from coming. Oh no!
Meanwhile down in Whoville, the residents are in a mad rush to prep everything for their holiday celebrations (somehow this self-contained small town cut off from, I assume, the nearest village and interstate highway has a thriving shopping district). Though for Papa Who (Vincent DiPeri), Mama Who (Melissa Weisbach), Grandma Who (Katy Vaughn) and Grandpa Who (David Thornton) in particular, their main concern is providing a wonderful Christmas---as always---for their young ones, including cuter-than-cute Cindy-Lou Who (the scene-stealing Raleigh Shuck at this performance).
Bright and bubbly, with plenty of delightful, surprise moments of audience inclusiveness, THE GRINCH stage musical is a fun, safe, and charming musical that can also serve as a theatrical primer for children who've never seen a live stage production. Also, more than anything, the musical and the characters within it often break the fourth wall, causing lots of opportunity for spontaneous back-and-forths between the kids and the Grinch (at one point, the Grinch character is peppered with so much pint-sized heckling from young audience members that he hilariously could not move on to his next line). Wow, live theater that actually encourages kids to yell at the meanie on stage!
With little expectations going in other than my fond memories of the televised cartoon musical that's become an annual staple in many a holiday season, I was pleasantly surprised by the stage adaptation (despite being a non-equity tour, the Matt August-directed production retains the high-energy choreography of John DeLuca and Bob Richard and the spirit of Jack O'Brien's original direction). It's absolutely cute and, as I've said, the kids will love it. It's always nice to see children being exposed to live theater so early in their young lives.
And while lead actor Karl does a tremendous job playing the title role with the sassiness and grouchy spunk it certainly requires (plus the guy can improv with kids like a pro), the biggest surprise of the night is the gloriously talented young Miss Shuck who played Cindy Lou Who for the opening night performance and stole our collective hearts (she alternates the role with Aviva Winick). Where the heck did they find this amazing young girl?! My gosh, at such a young age, she acted (and sang) like a seasoned pro. I mean, wow... this tiny thespian is probably the best super-young actress I've seen in a while. Someone give this girl her own Disney sitcom, STAT!
Looking for a family-friendly musical? Give THE GRINCH a chance. The people of Whoville certainly did.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos by PaparazziByAppointment.com, courtesy of SCFTA.
Performances of DR. SEUSS' HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS! THE MUSICAL continues at Segerstrom Center for the Arts through December 14. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.
For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.