How the Grinch Stole Christmas! - the Musical
nytheatre.com review by David Koteles
November 3, 2006
Poor Dr. Seuss can't seem to catch a break. His little tome about anti-commercialism, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, has gone on to become an over-produced, big-budgeted Hollywood movie, and now a splashy, pull-out-the-stops Broadway musical. His message that Christmas isn't found in the things we buy but, rather, in the hearts of the people we love has been sold for big profits. How greedy can his estate be? The answer can be found at the Hilton Theatre in the new Broadway musical version of everyone's favorite holiday cartoon. At 99 bucks a pop for a family show, and an unprecedented and labor-exploitive 12 shows a week—a Broadway first, and hopefully last—you can't help but wonder if the green fella's costume is sewn out of hundred dollar bills.
Not that you can't see the money poured into the show: it's all there on stage, just waiting for dividends. The magic has been brought to life in dazzling, eye-popping wonder. The sets are terrific, the lighting's gorgeous, each costume is enchanting, and the special effects are all top-notch.
Presented by Target—eek—the show is not without its Broadway pedigree. Namely John Cullum donning a silly dog suit in what's got to be the worst gig on his tony Tony-winning resume, as Old Max, the show's narrator. At least Patrick Page gets the title role and, of course, as much scenery as he can possibly chew. Page is no stranger to theme park costumes, having performed both Scar and Lumiere on the Great White Way. Director Jack O'Brien is listed as the creator and supervisor and has the space at bottom of the page in Playbill usually reserved for the director. And the design team is made up of Broadway's very best. With so much talent on stage and backstage, you can't help but expect a better product.
The look is both faithful to Seuss and deliciously pleasing on its own. Broadway designers John Lee Beatty's sets are amusing and merry, and Robert Morgan's costumes are a constant delight; zany designs in a palette of red and white—perhaps I'm cynical, but I kept trying to find a hidden Target logo in the Where's Waldo activity crammed on the stage. The handsome lighting is by Broadway vet Pat Collins.
The aforementioned performances, while not great, are still fairly good. Page makes the Grinch his own while maintaining the integrity of the Boris Karloff version. He makes a hammy, cuddly Grinch; part Captain Hook, part Frasier Crane. I should also mention, it really looks like he's enjoying himself up there. Rusty Ross is adorable as the Grinch's pet/sidekick Young Max, and wags his way into your heart. And who knows his way across a Broadway stage better than John Cullum? Even dressed as an aging dog, Cullum adds authenticity and elegance to the production. Matt August directs the action smoothly; under the supervision of the Old Globe director O'Brien and, I would guess, the Theodore Geisel estate, the large team of producers, and perhaps even several toy manufacturers.
What's lacking here is a good book. The 26-minute cartoon has been bloated to a hefty 75 minutes—even the laconic storybook takes a mere 20 to read aloud, and that includes ample time to study the illustrations. Unfortunately, what fills the time merely fills the time and doesn't add a lot to either the story or the characters. Like its source material, the book is in rhyme; unfortunately not nearly as clever as the good doctor's zippy verse (but really, whose is?).
A few new songs exist, which are fairly harmless until Annie—er, I mean Cosette—er, I mean Cindy Lou Who sings a particularly sappy child ballad about love. Only in musical theatre are eight-year-old girls considered sage arbiters on the contents of the human heart. Mel Marvin and Timothy Mason's milquetoast score makes your heart ache that the late Albert Hague (Professor Shorofsky from Fame!) didn't compose an entire Grinch score himself—as he truly seems to be the only one thus able to tap into Seuss's magical well of inspiration. Thankfully, the creators were smart enough to keep two of his songs, including everyone's favorite, "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch."
I took my nephew, who's almost five, because I thought it would make me the greatest uncle EVER. For the most part, he liked it. However, he wasn't incredibly impressed, and was a little too scared of the Grinch to thoroughly enjoy it. He did like the theatre experience quite a bit, and the fact that there's a happy ending was very important to him, and he LOVED the confetti that was shot over the audience. But his awe over the confetti seemed to have little to do with the 70 minutes that preceded it—he could have sat through Marat/Sade for all he cared. If you want to spend $100 a seat to watch confetti slowly drift to the floor, then this show's for you! I must admit that I was proud when my nephew told me his favorite character was John Cullum as Old Max—the boy can already spot talent!
This production is as much about the concession stands as it is about the show. Several plush toys, key chains, puppets, T-shirts, boxer shorts, and books are handsomely displayed in the many gift stalls throughout the theatre—all to take your money—er, I mean let you buy your child's happiness—er, I mean for your convenience. Yes, that's why. For your convenience, they've made it physically impossible not to pass a gift stall while either entering or exiting the theatre. You really have to wonder if the play's anti-consumerism message resonated with anyone. In fairness, I, momentarily, wanted a piece of this loveable green fellow and his hapless, yappy dog Max, too, but the long lines helped me resist.
Among the various family holiday extravaganzas, this is probably the most lavish and crowd-pleasing production yet. If this feels like faint praise, well, that's because it is. Overall, the show's heart is two sizes too small.