You may be tempted to pull out Dr. Seuss' picture book How the Grinch Stole Christmas! to read to your kids, or just to yourself, before going to see the Children's Theatre Company (CTC) musical adaptation.
Children's Theatre Company
It's really best if you don't, though. Keep that simple, moving story far from your mind as you gird yourself for director Peter C. Brosius's maximalist stage spectacle.
Since the book was published in 1957, the Grinch has ballooned in pop-culture status. He's become the signature villain of the Christmas cinematic universe, and he fits that role because he doesn't need to be explained. He was born to terrorize Whoville, like the Uruk-hai were built to storm Gondor.
Yet, Timothy Mason's stage musical — commissioned by CTC for its 1994 world premiere — succumbs to the same temptation that deadened the 2000 film adaptation with Jim Carrey, and threatens to do the same to Benedict Cumberbatch's CGI Grinch hitting screens next year. The show takes us way too deep inside the Grinch's psyche, which is not a pleasant place to be.
Nor is Whoville particularly winning, introduced in a phantasmagoria of scenes that have outrageously costumed actors frenetically engaged in boisterous play and holiday shopping. The Grinch complains that they're just too loud, and it's hard to disagree, especially after the green monster is subjected to a dream sequence where he's bashed and battered about the stage by the cacophonous Whos.
The eponymous holiday hater is played by Reed Sigmund, who can entertain effortlessly and who puts a lot of effort into this role. Preening and posturing and chewing his lines like dried beef, Sigmund strains to exploit every moment he's onstage...which is a lot of moments, few of which give him anything particularly interesting to do or say.
When the Grinch finally gets to unleash mayhem, looting the Whos' living rooms, it's the highlight of the show. Unfortunately, even that scene grinds to a halt for one of Mel Marvin's many mediocre songs, this one delivered by Cindy-Lou Who (Mabel Weismann). Her plaintive presence melts the Grinch's heart, which might be moving if his beleaguered pooch Max weren't played by another young girl (the endearing Natalie Tran) who we've just watched the Grinch knock mercilessly back and forth across the stage for an hour.
You might think that kind of highly selective sympathy would leave Max roiling with resentment, but don't worry: We know he lived to forgive the green monster, because an aged version of the dog (Dean Holt) serves as our jovial narrator. This gives the musical a mouth for Seuss' immortal words (as well as for much of Mason's far less distinguished verbiage), but also crowds an already overstuffed stage.
Like any CTC production, this Grinch manifests a vast amount of truly expert stagecraft. Tom Butsch's set takes us from the hamlet of Whoville to a precipitous mountaintop, Max dangling from a harness tied to the Grinch's wobbling sleigh. David Kay Mickelsen's costumes turn the Whos into living cartoons, the men's bellies bulging and the women's legs dangling like bell clappers in their swinging skirts. Linda Talcott Lee's choreography is perfectly on point. Even the Grinch's eyes literally burn red, in a particularly fiendish touch.
To what end, though? In all its supersized splendor, this Grinch loses sight of the story's essential insight, which is that all the holiday's decadent trappings don't matter: Christmas comes anyway, if you have joy in your heart. The simplest and best pleasures to be had in this production are when the actors come out into the audience: when kids can gape at the Grinch and hug the Whos. Maybe it's time for CTC to reboot this franchise, with a streamlined production that gets right to the heart of the matter.
Children's Theatre Company