Sure, some of us chafe at Christmas decorations appearing in stores in early September, or roll our eyes when strains of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” invade the airwaves. But let’s be honest: There’s nobody who hates Christmas more than Dr. Seuss’s green-furred Grinch. He’s been railing, in one form or another, against our holiday cheer since his debut in 1957.
And he’s still railing—and belting out songs, too—in the touring production of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical” that’s gracing the Overture Center’s Overture Hall through Sunday. Aimed squarely at kids and families, it’s a fun and colorful spin on a story that’s always been near and dear to our hearts.
The show’s constructed as a memory play, with Old Max (Bob Lauder), an elderly incarnation of the Grinch’s long-suffering canine companion, recalling the fateful night when he was an unwilling participant in the Grinch’s (Philip Bryan) great holiday heist. Max is “moving on”—whatever the heck that means—but he’ll stop to re-tell the tale, and eventually belt out “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” with audience participation encouraged.
The show starts a little slowly—it apparently takes multiple musical numbers to firmly establish that the Grinch’s hatred of holidays and the Whos down in Whoville has no rational or explicable basis in reality, one of several ways the show strains to stretch Seuss’ original poem into a 90-minute show.
The visuals are often impressive. John Lee Beatty’s set relies on oversized pieces that look like they’ve been cut straight out of a Seuss book and blown up to the eventual size of the Grinch’s rehabilitated heart. The Whos looks like striped cotton candy confections come to life, their ballooning bellies flopping and bopping around the stage as they profess their love for their favorite holiday. The costumes and hairstyles are a real highlight.
But the Grinch remains the star of the show. With green fur sticking up in spikes on his head, Bryan’s portrayal owes a ton more to Michael Keaton’s Beetlejuice than Jim Carrey’s ham-tastic portrayal of the Grinch in the 2000 Ron Howard flick. For that, we can all be grateful. He mugs and preens for the audience like a verdant banshee, using the tips of his furry fingers (which look like miniature willow trees) to great comic effect. He apes a Texas tourist, and goes meta when Cindy Lou Who (Avery Sell on opening night, alternating with Delilah Rose Pellow) starts to sing “Santa for a Day.”
“Oh, no! It’s a ballad!” he wails.
Speaking of Cindy, Sell was a pint-sized package of pure charm. It’s not hard at all to see how Cindy steals the Grinch’s heart—although it’s interesting to see his transformation start there, rather than at the peak of Mount Crumpet.
In a couple of senses, the show struggles to deliver the moral of Seuss’ original Christmas parable. In the number “It’s the Thought that Counts,” Grandpa Who (James Schultz) clearly doesn’t buy the song title’s take on gift giving, and his fancy-brand obsessed relatives don’t seem especially sold on it either. And while the Whos, naturally, manage to come together and celebrate a gift-free Christmas, it feels odd for the Grinch to get thanks and credit for returning the pricey red-rocking horse he’s stolen from Cindy.
The kids aren’t likely to track with any of that. They’ll just revel in the spray of snow-like confetti and whirls of candy-cane colors. Dah Who Doraze, everybody.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.