Marcus Center's "Grinch" is cheery enough to grow your heart at least one size
'Tis the season for cheer, for joy to the world … and for hotly debating the very important issues of the day. No, not politics – we're talking just debates, not knife fights – but is "Die Hard" a Christmas movie? And are you basic AF for saying it is? Turkey or ham for the holiday meal? "The Christmas Shoes": yay or nay? Black Friday: a glorious chance for savings or a pox on society? Is it more fun to give or receive? "A Christmas Story" versus "Christmas Vacation" … versus "It's a Wonderful Life" … and also versus "Elf."
Yes, these are the truly difficult debates when the calendar prepares to flip to December. And in my particular household, no holiday debate gets feistier than pitting the original animated "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" against the 2000 Jim Carrey remake. Thankfully, I've discovered a way to make sure all is calm and all is bright: the touring musical adaptation of the glorious green Christmas grump on stage at the Marcus Center, which finds the merry middle ground between the manic modern energy of the live-action film and the clever charms and hand-drawn creativity of the (obviously superior) animated classic.
The basics of the story are as unchanged as your family's beloved sweet potato pie recipe. The Whos down in Whoville like Christmas a lot; the Grinch in his cave would rather they not. So he puts on Santa's suit and packs up his sleigh, then speeds down to Whoville to take Christmas away. The Grinch swindles and scrundles and swipes all their joy, only to discover it's not found in any toy. You all know the story; you'll cry and you'll laugh – and you'll start talking in rhyme, if only for a graf.
While the original's festive power fit in just a half an hour (OK, that's enough limerick-ing), "How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical" stretches itself to 90 minutes in order to justify the Broadway stage (and Broadway ticket prices). Unfortunately, most of the new material is filler that adds little to the show beyond minutes to its running time.
The already poor, overworked dog Max gets even more to do, taking over the reins from Boris Karloff and narrating the story as an old dog (W. Scott Stewart) reminiscing about his days as the Grinch's loyal young pup (Jared Starkey), while the audience spends extra time on bonus shopping sprees with both the Grinch and the Whos. These additions hint at new directions – Stewart's performance occasionally aches of warm melancholy and nostalgia for his days of youth, and you can sense an anti-commercial, anti-materialistic bite trying to come through in the Whos' plot – but Timothy Mason's book doesn't bother tugging on any of those threads.
Instead, they're just transparent excuses for more musical numbers, which would be diverting enough … if the songs were diverting enough. None of the new unremarkably peppy tunes from Mason and Mel Marvin (lyrics and music, respectively) make an impact – save for "What Cha Ma Who," which makes an impact similar to a yellow snowball to the face, an incoherent, kazoo-assisted cacophony of noise, noise, noise, noise! The tune is made to be annoying, but it perhaps does its job too well, making me wish the Grinch would drop all the Whos off Mount Crumpit along with their toys.
The songs you will remember walking out of the theater are the ones you already walked in humming. "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" is still one of the most satisfyingly slithery, playfully nasty songs ever written, a sneering treat that somehow gifts listeners a new delightful diss every time you hear it – even decades after its debut. Stewart doesn't quite have the floor-rumbling bass of Boris Karloff, but he's close enough – and audiences will be too busy joining in with the built-in sing-along segment to complain. And while Mason and Marvin attempt to replace "Welcome, Christmas" with the nice enough "Who Likes Christmas?", there's just no substituting the magic of the Whos original holiday anthem, still warmer than a steaming mug of hot cocoa.
As with the music, the best bits of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical" are the ones that feel most like Dr. Seuss' original book and cartoon. The story's sweetness wouldn't work as well without the tale's sinister bite as well, which survives the translation to the stage. The Grinch's howling ride down to Whoville and his menacing eureka moment are enough to cause chills, and even the opening curtain gets into the act, with sneaky yellow eyes blinking around before the show.
Meanwhile, the buildings and backgrounds, designed by John Lee Beatty, often look like hand-drawn, perfectly imperfect doodles pulled right off Theodor Geisel's pages, and the character and costume design from Robert Morgan follows suit, outfitting each Who in a suit that delightfully turns them turnip-shaped. Ironically enough, the only costume that falls flat is the Grinch himself, a stringy clump of hair that looks more like one of Max's chew toys than our lovably loathsome schemer.
While the suit may not be on point, the man inside of it makes for a great Grinch, combining the best of all Grinchian worlds. If you're a stan for the original version, Philip Huffman's take features plenty of notes of Karloff's snarling menace – and eventually converted sweetness – as well as Seuss' crooked movements and poses. And if you're a fan of the Carrey performance, Huffman delivers all of the uncontainable mugging and irrepressible energy you could ask for – so much so even the show itself can't contain his chaotic charisma, climbing the stage's sides, nagging at the crowd and bursting in from offstage to scare characters and interrupt Max's narration to sing, dance and preen some more of his showtune to solitude, "One of a Kind."
Like much modern kids entertainment, the show believes in the more mania, the better, tossing a lot at the audience – kazoos and sing-alongs and puppets and fake snow and even a Brewers jersey. But when it's Huffman at the helm, the throws tend to land as a strike – even the kind of "Hello fellow kids" references to hashtags and flossing that should induce a groan.
Much like that devious Grinch, there's much to dislike about "How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical" – and yet it ends up endearing despite it all. There's enough buoyant Seussical creative energy to win over a Grinch traditionalist like myself, and beneath the clutter and the craziness, the soul and spirit of the true reason for the season still sings. True confession: I spent the first third of the show grumbling and harrumphing – but by the time trumpets were blaring down Mount Crumpit and fahoo fores were dahoo dore-ing, I was smiling. You could even say my small heart grew three sizes that day.
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