SALT LAKE CITY — How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the beloved book by Dr. Seuss, is a popular culture staple, nearly everyone knows what it means to call someone a “Grinch.” It would also be difficult to find anyone who had never heard the song, “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch” from the 1966 cartoon adaptation of the book, which is similarly engrained in the popular culture Christmas treasury in this country. Because of the familiarity people feel with this story, any adaptation is bound to come up against challenges. Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, playing now at the Capitol Theatre as part of Broadway Across America faces those challenges. Under director Matt August this touring production will tickle and delight audiences young and old, but both the book and the score of this musical fail to measure up to the original.
It is unfair, perhaps, to compare this musical adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas with the Dr. Seuss original, arguably a masterpiece of children’s Christmas literature. The story is about a fictional people called “Whos” who live in “Whoville” not far from the watchful eye of the Grinch, who hates the Christmas holiday. So, he decides to steal every Christmas item in the town and then awaits to hear the Whos’ reaction. To his surprise, the Whos wake up and celebrate Christmas morning just as they have always done: with beautiful song. The Grinch discovers that Christmas is not all about material possessions, and his newfound knowledge of this leads to a change of heart.
In a simple synopsis How the Grinch Stole Christmas sounds like a trite, inconsequential story, but with the words and images by Dr. Seuss, the story comes magically to life. The rhymes are delightfully clever, and the illustrations are tickling-ly whimsical. Capturing just the same spirit of the book is difficult, but I would argue that it is almost achieved by the 1966 cartoon, while the 2000 movie fell short of that task, as does Timothy Mason‘s script for Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical. Despite elements such as set and costume design that visually point to the world of Dr. Seuss, the script falls short in speaking what I will call “Suess-ese,” even though it is obvious Mason tried his best. Most of the rhymes just are not witty or humorous enough to compete with Dr. Seuss, and it seems too obvious when lines from the original book are spoken on stage.
In addition, the added plot elements seem out of synch and do not match the tone of the material taken from the book. The musical retells all of the main events of the original, of course, but there are added scenes, two of which are most prominent. The first is with the musical number “What Cha Ma Who” during which the Grinch laments the noise children make at Christmas. The other is during the number “It’s the Thought That Counts” during which the Whos do their Christmas shopping and are joined, at the end of the number, by the Grinch in disguise as he spies on the Whos in preparation for his diabolical Christmas Eve scheme. Both numbers are slickly Broadway, but simply do not fit seamlessly with the story. In fact, these songs (with music by Mel Marvin and Albert Hague and lyrics by Timothy Mason) emphasize the material aspects of Christmas and provide too much justification for the Grinch’s hatred of Christmas.
Moreover, the show is at times stylistically distracting. It is narrated by the dog from the book, now in his old age and reflecting back on the events of “that Christmas.” This story-telling device does work with the show, but there are times when the Grinch also breaks the fourth wall to interact with the audience. While this does bring laughs, it is out of place in the greater dramatic narrative. Although the writers clearly tried to pay homage to the original book while adding popular Broadway dramatic elements, they failed to create a truly memorable adaptation because they were caught between being faithful to the original and reinventing it. Had they focused on doing one or the other, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical would be more appealing.
In case I sound like a Grinch, I should emphasize that this is a really fun family musical. With a run time of ninety minutes and no intermission, it is definitely one to take the kids to. They will love John Lee Beatty’s fantastical set. It is as if the illustrations were lifted from pages of the book, a three dimensional cartoon on stage. The costume design by Robert Morgan is even more delightful, with all of the Whos decked out in red, white, and pink creations. And the truly wonderful Grinch costume is perfect, especially with the furry long fingers that give emphasis to all of the character’s lines.
As the Grinch, Stefan Karl’s performance is truly the highlight of the show. Intensely physical, he does vocal acrobatics during the musical numbers and when speaking lines with added potty-humor noises (to the delight of small children in the audience). He is well-matched with Bob Lauder as Old Max and Andres Wyder as Young Max (both decked out in fabulous dog costumes with great big furry, waggely tails). Both performances are superb, especially during the musical number “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” which includes an extremely clever sing-along opportunity for the audience.
Other impressive elements of the musical include the creative use of puppetry during “Welcome Christmas,” the incredibly orchestrated “stealing” of Christmas, and the show-stopping moment when the Grinch’s heart grows “three sizes that day.” To be sure, these three moments are stand-out to other spectacular visual elements and stage tricks.
Despite its faults, this musical is not without magic. Playing in Salt Lake City through November 23rd, it is worth the experience of seeing how it measures up to audience members’ own expectations of what a musical version of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas should be.