Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 9, 2007
When I was a kid, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the Chuck Jones/Dr. Seuss animated cartoon) was one of the few perennial holiday events that brought the whole family together; my father in particular loved the Grinch, and my memories of this merry half-hour show are all fond.
Now, so many decades later, the Baby Boomers are once again cannibalizing what they should cherish. There's already been a Grinch movie (didn't see it) and today I saw the Grinch musical (Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical is its unwieldy title). Like most of the Disney movie knockoffs that have preceded this show on Broadway, Grinch The Musical proves how difficult it is to translate something short and artful and reasonably priced in one medium into something longer and artful and worth up to $99 a ticket in another. Though only 80 minutes long, this show mostly feels padded, and never works up the level of wonderment or delight that might give it a raison d'etre for being on stage.
The story is the same as in the original book and cartoon, basically: the Grinch, a misanthropic furry green creature who lives with his maltreated dog Max on Mount Crumpit, high above Whoville, hates Christmas, and decides to try to steal it. But though he manages to snare all the gifts and decorations and even the highly anticipated roast beast dinner from all the Whos, he is unsuccessful in preventing them from celebrating; he learns (and we learn, or are reminded) that the external trappings of Christmas aren't what count: it's the spirit of goodwill and joy and sharing and peace that matters.
I wish that Timothy Mason (credited with book and lyrics), Mel Marvin (music), and Jack O'Brien ("original production conceived and directed by" is how his credit reads in the program) had fashioned this musical so that the above simple but heartfelt (and always useful) message really resonated within it. Instead, it's given short shrift, in favor of a more generic concept of togetherness and conformity (one that jarringly suggests that being "One of a Kind," as the Grinch proudly sings he himself is, somehow fates one to a lonely, bitter existence). There's also a musical number in the middle of the show (where, alas, its message is less likely to be remembered) about how "It's the Thought That Counts"; and someone does say that Christmas can't be bought in the store. But the lovely secular, humanist ideal that I remember from the Messrs. Jones and Geisel is really absent here, and that's a shame.
Mason, Marvin, O'Brien, and their collaborators seem to have trouble settling on a style for the piece as well. Is it a celebration of imagination and storytelling, as the Seuss-inspired sets suggest? Or is it an extravaganza designed to win over parents and children alike with special effects and pizzazz, as several of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular-ish musical numbers portend? Trying to be both, the show ultimately succeeds as neither, I'm afraid. The youngsters in the audience at the show I attended—and there were a lot of them—responded happily when stuff fell out of the sky onto their heads (nothing heavy, I promise) and when Patrick Page as the Grinch tossed them some hip asides (as when, just before kicking some gifts into a sack, he announced he would "bend it like Beckham"). The audience also seemed to like the sing along reprise of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," which features some genuinely imaginative design as the words to the show's one hit (from the old TV cartoon; music and lyrics by Albert Hague) are displayed in a variety of unexpected places on stage.
But mostly the kids' response was listless, I thought, because too much of this show is just like every other generic holiday spectacle that even a six-year-old has had enough of. It's not bad, mind you, just derivative and mediocre.
Page does excel as the Grinch, though, and Rusty Ross is delightful as his dog, Max. Ed Dixon plays an older version of Max, who serves as our narrator. The rest of the ensemble—ten adults and ten children, all dressed in outfits that reminded me more of Oz's Munchkins than Seuss's Whos—give their all to put over material that's mostly hopelessly hokey; they're pretty heroic about it, it seemed to me.
I'm all for establishing new traditions to celebrate the holidays, and furthermore I of all people would be thrilled to see them happen within the world of live theatre. But much more ingenuity and sense of purpose needs to go into creating such a tradition than what's on view in the musicalized Grinch. Let's bring back the old Madison Square Garden Christmas Carol instead.