December 6, 2012
So what maketh an excellent Grinch? Well, take one part Harvey Fierstein, add one part Christopher Walken, shake the whole with just a macabre splash of Richard Nixon and you've got a verdant critter capable of evoking nightmares, the intensity of which Cindy Lou and all the other Whos of Whoville could only dream of.
Stefan Karl, the rather Nixonian actor in the title role of the non-Equity touring production of this seasonal attraction — now hilariously titled “Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical,” lest any potential ticket buyer develop some kind of sale-killing amnesia — manages to concoct quite the splendid green meanie of indeterminate geographic origin.
And for some in the target demographic, Karl is that rare non-Equity star: An Icelandic actor (also known as Stefan Karl Stefansson), he plays the villainous Robbie Rotten on the TV show “Lazy Town.” Robbie Rotten as The Grinch. For some, that's about as exciting as Justin Bieber doing “Tommy.”
What? Not you? Perhaps you're of the view that the musings of Theodore Seuss Geisel are best enjoyed on the page, accompanied by the author's original illustrations.
After having sat through “The Seussical” (several times) before “The Grinch” and pondered at some length how Dr. Seuss always seems to get the better of the most creative theater artists (it's that wacky language, perhaps, or that wholly finished imaginative world or that offbeat narrative structure), that would be my considered and settled view.
But before I go off on some puritan rant designed to get you to read to your kids rather than plopping down up to $95 a ticket to take them to the theater and watch an older and wiser Max the Dog narrate the story of a fateful Christmas, let's not forget that had this 1957 story not been licensed as a 1966 animated TV special, then the useful-for-the-workplace adjectival riffs on Grinch (Grinch-like, Grinchy, Grinchesque) would just not be useful at all now.
The Grinch is a multiplatform meanie for a multiplatform world. He's probably cackling somewhere in an app on your phone.
That Chuck Jones special, of course, was about a half-hour long. “Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch ...” (Oh, for goodness sake, you know what show I'm talking about), is a 90-minute one-act show. (Yep, one buck a minute, although compared with the most recent David Mamet offering on Broadway, that's a bargain price, folks).
Ninety minutes is still a s-t-r-e-t-c-h of the original story of reform and resilience, even when you give the Whos a couple of chirpy production numbers and Louly Lou, or whatever her name is, a treacly ballad.
In a rather droll moment Wednesday night at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, Karl's Grinch greeted the first note of that treat with the whine “Oh, a ballad,” which had a certain self-aware je ne sais quoi.
I wish “Grinch,” which was originally conceived for the New York theater that now hosts “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” in 2006 by Jack O'Brien had a more interesting theatrical metaphor.
Do all these Whos, perfectly decent as these performers are, really need to keep bobbing and shaking their heads to get us in a Seussian frame of mind? In the final stiff encore of bobbing and shaking, I just wanted to get to know these nice, poker-faced-yet-Christmas-loving people a little, even if their creator made them weird. Heck, we're all weird. Might there not be another Seussian frame of mind for the theater?
Oh come on actors, let's have a little fun and blow up the Whos (figuratively speaking)! What about Whoville as some recession-weary town and the Grinch as — well, you decide, but let's not get overly political at Christmas. All together now, “You're a Mean One, Mr. ------.”
Any such innovation takes more guts when it comes to season-branded entertainment than this particular attraction cares to risk. As mild, post-shopping, bought-on-a-discount diversions go, this is really not a bad show for you and your kids. Karl's all-too-brief interactions with the audience are the highlight: I got a kick out of the Grinch doing the “Hello, Chicago” routine like he was Liza with a hiss.
The production values are perfectly fine (better than most nonunion tours), the performers engaging and tuneful, and the score (by Mel Marvin and Timothy Mason) harmless enough, although there's nothing here to compete with the two songs everyone already knows: “You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome Christmas.”
At least the Grinch himself has a blast. And it snows inside the theater, which is the only place I ever like to see that stuff.
When: Dec. 5-16
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
Tickets: $18-$85 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com
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