Chicago Theater Review: DR. SEUSS’ HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS! THE MUSICAL (The Chicago Theatre)

by Lawrence Bommer on November 21, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

GRINCH AND BEAR IT

As with Sweeney Todd, the Grinch is bent on revenge, though his motivation is much murkier. He’s your typical green outsider, like Little Shop’s plant Audrey II, the Frog Prince, or Shrek the Ogre, enraged at not fitting in with the Hallmark-carded Whos of Whoville. Perversely, the creature wants to earn in advance the enmity he anticipates. His saga, last produced in Chicago two years ago, remains only 90 minutes long—about one hour longer than the beloved 1966 animated special, and just long enough to finish reading the book by the late Dr. Seuss.

Aleksa Kurbalija as Max and Shuler Hensley as The Grinch in "Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical," running Nov. 20-29 at The Chicago Theatre. Photo by Bruce Oglesby-Bluemoon Studios

The musical originated in 1995 at Minneapolis’s Children’s Theatre Company in 1994 before being mounted at San Diego’s Old Globe, which has offered Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical annually since 1998. This time, MSG Entertainment is producing a rendition of the 2006 Broadway offering at The Chicago Theatre, but the context remains.

The Whos of Whoville in "Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical," running Nov. 20-29 at The Chicago Theatre. Photo by Bruce Oglesby-Bluemoon Studios.

As I noted before, Jack O’Brien’s faithful staging (reprised by Matt August) of the beloved holiday chestnut is suitably stylized. Robert Morgan’s costumes for the relentlessly cheerful, ditheringly addlepated residents of Whoville could have stepped out of the storybook. The score, by book and lyricist Timothy Mason and composer Mel Marvin, is serviceable to a tale we want to remember rather than confront. It also contains original favorites by Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel (lyrics) and Albert Hague (music), including “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome Christmas” (“Fah Who Foraze”).

Shuler Hensley as The Grinch and Aleksa Kurbalija as Max in "Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical," running Nov. 20-29 at The Chicago Theatre. Photo by Bruce Oglesby-Bluemoon Studios.

Seen in Chicago’s second coming, it’s more obvious that Shuler Hensley’s gratuitously misanthropic Grinch is ripe for conversion from the start: His even owning a pooch named Max (Aleksa Kurbalija) shows he’s no bitter recluse. His extended scene with Cindy-Lou Who (Gracie Beardsley, exuding cute), as he robs her house blind, shows he has enough shame to lie (as a more bold-faced villain could do in his sleep). From remorse can come reform: It’s only the discovery that “Christmas doesn’t come from a store” that both melts his heart and enlarges it twofold.

Aleksa Kurbalija as Max and Shuler Hensley as The Grinch in "Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical," running Nov. 20-29 at The Chicago Theatre. Photo by Bruce Oglesby-Bluemoon Studios

Gilding the lily, this sometimes insistent production leaves no subtext unspoken. Kids, who catch onto adults fairly fast, will get the Grinch a bit sooner than the creators imagined. Like an emerald X-Man, Grinchy-Poo’s anthem proclaims that he’s “One of a Kind,” a boast that turns into a curse. It’s a cute reversal.

Shuler Hensley as The Grinch in "Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical," running Nov. 20-29 at The Chicago Theatre. Photo by Bruce Oglesby-Bluemoon Studios.

Not so clever is how Seuss and this sequel imagine a Whoville that, viewed backwards, smacks a bit too much of 50’s conformity and “togetherness.” (at least it’s not a materialistic morass which has Who service workers expected to toil on Thanksgiving Day, as happens in the non-Seuss world).

Aleksa Kurbalija as Young Max and Ken Land as Old Max in "Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical," running Nov. 20-29 at The Chicago Theatre. Photo by Bruce Oglesby-Bluemoon Studios

Ken Land, playing Old Max revisiting his servitude to a serial stealer, effectively creates a memory in the making. The action that follows inevitably gets steeped in our own nostalgia for the book and cartoon. It’s a territoriality that makes you want to respond to “I Hate Christmas,” the Grinch’s unsubtle confession of the obvious, with, “Methinks the reptile doth protest too much” (two words: Jim Carrey).

Presley Ryan as Cindy-Lou Who and Shuler Hensley as The Grinch in "Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical," running Nov. 20-29 at The Chicago Theatre. Photo by Bruce Oglesby-Bluemoon Studios

As in the cartoon and the book, actions speak louder than the “given” of Grinchiness. Fortunately, John DeLuca’s choreography, here revived by Bob Richard, creates delightful Currier and Ives-style tableaux of Who domesticity and Grinch poutiness. For kids and most adults that’s argument enough. It also helps that the immense snowfall on stage can be withstood far better than the real stuff outside the theater.

The Company of "Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical," running Nov. 20-29 at The Chicago Theatre. Photo by Bruce Oglesby-Bluemoon Studios

photos by Bruce Ogesbly/Bluemoon Studios

Shuler Hensley and the company of "Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical," running Nov. 20-29 at The Chicago Theatre. Photo by Bruce Oglesby-Bluemoon Studios.

Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical
MSG Entertainment
The Chicago Theatre
175 North State Street
scheduled to end on November 29, 2014
for tickets, visit www.thechicagotheatre.com

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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