As a first time Broadway-esque experience, this year’s iteration of “Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical” performs its duties with enough pleasing flair and upright enthusiasm to charm its young audience into a return trip to the box office. For the nostalgic chaperones in tow, however, the show might disappoint.
The primary thrills are here: a perfectly frumpy, frothy Grinch with his fur extending six inches beyond his fingertips, the bump and wriggle of the candy-colored Whos and a set with silly psychedelia bending before the eyes. Timothy Mason’s book and lyrics and Mel Marvin’s music are suitably woven with Seuss’ intention, if not his joviality, but this is of minor concern. The kids came for the Grinch, after all.
And what a Grinch they get: Tony Award-winner Shuler Hensley (“Oklahoma!”) is delightfully devious, with a sufficient growl to spook the youngest audience members and enough broad pluck to rope in parents. Aleksa Kurbalija, as a highly animated young Max the Dog, is a standout, full of physical wit and charm. Ken Land ties it together admirably as Old Max, in his tattered fur suit, reminiscing about the Christmas that changed Whoville.
The story progresses, more or less, as expected, and an audience familiar with the story won’t be challenged to keep up. A somewhat moral-spoiling shopping number and a confusing bit of belabored plumping on the Cindy Lou Who-Grinch confrontation are minor quibbles, although in light of the stuttering pace of the show, these elements could easily be excised.
There are the songs, of course, with two developed from the 1966 animated version—a sweetly rendered “Welcome Christmas” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”—being clearly superior. The latter, morphing into a sing-along midstream seemed to re-enliven an otherwise listing audience on opening night. The many others —including the show’s refrain “Who Loves Christmas”—flesh out the somewhat meandering, essentially interstitial elements that have fattened the story into its eighty-plus minutes.
This is the real conundrum with the presentation—in order to justify the venue, the ticket price (between $35 and $125) and the swarming cast of Whos, there is a dual need to massage every corner of the audience while building the story out to an acceptable running-time. It is clear the intent here was to whip the sugary center, fluff it up with warm, pine-scented air and present it on a stick like cotton candy. Unfortunately, the result is taffy: a little too heavy, stretched into treacly strands and, inevitably, stuck to your teeth for hours.
Most unappetizing is the adult-pandering that widens as the production lags. The eerily disorienting effect of every punched-up, dad-grinning cultural reference (“Ho-Ho-Fricken-Ho,” “Hashtag: Grinch,” or a fumbled, mumbled Jay Cutler reference) pasted into the production effectively sours what could be a passively nostalgic experience for the chaperones. We don’t expect much more of “Shrek” or “Kung Fu Panda;” they’ve come to us fully formed of a world that can’t seemingly save itself from these gags. Unfortunately, our Grinch doesn’t have this luxury and the anachronistic gags fall flat.
Children-oriented theater, at its best, provides its youngest audience with the thrill of lifting great characters from the torn, flat page and putting them into exciting action. For its older audience, it can also provide ephemeral shelter from irony and cynicism—often while watching their children rave and laugh. This alchemy can be found elsewhere in numerous smaller venues, but it is not in evidence here. Of course, by the time the manufactured snow is dropping onto the first thirty rows and the confetti cannons have fired and a massive wreath has encircled the grinning players, all of this is pretty minor tarnish on the shiny bombast. (Jonathan Richardson)
MSG Entertainment at The Chicago Theatre, 175 North State, thechicagotheatre.com/thegrinch. $35-$125. Through November 29.