Let’s face it: We all have a little bit of garlic in our souls.
That pungent description and all it implies, which Dr. Seuss penned to evoke the moral repugnance of his most popular villain, gets maximum mileage in the one-act musical adaptation of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” that opened Tuesday in Shea’s Performing Arts Center to a rapturous crowd.
The idea that the trappings and traditions of the holiday season can sometimes rub even the most Christmas-crazed among us the wrong way is an old one. And it’s central to the appeal of Dr. Seuss’ book and the irresistible 1966 television special that grew out of it.
When he wrote the lyrics for “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” Dr. Seuss knew his audience was at least as likely to identify with his grumbly green antihero as to all those insufferably cheerful residents of Whoville, prattling on about their blum-blookers and hoo-whunkers. Chuck Jones knew it, too, when he produced his thrilling animation of the Grinch’s sinister smile spreading across his face like the slow bloom of some wicked flower.
And Stefan Karl, the Icelandic actor who plays the title role on stage with all the operatic swagger, cruel humor and gross physical comedy you could ever hope to find in Seuss’ character, most definitely knows it. Karl’s bravura performance is the main reason to see the show, which otherwise pads about 30 minutes of potent material with too much boilerplate Broadway song and dance.
Back in the mid-’90s, composer Mel Marvin had the wonderful, awful idea of turning the Christmas classic tale into a musical. That show was later transformed into a Broadway-ready song-and-dance spectacle by director Jack O’Brien. It wowed crowds in San Diego and eventually landed on Broadway in 2007 for a brief but popular run.
While it doesn’t get the original material entirely mangled up, the show includes too many overlong production numbers and pedestrian lyrics that suffer immensely from their proximity to the imaginative wordplay of Dr. Seuss. The original rhymes “reason” with “season” once. This show does it an unforgivable number of times. (I lost count after five.)
Even so, it retains much of the charm of the old and very reliable story at its heart about a grumbly guy who learns to shed his cynicism and expand his heart a few sizes in the process. (For an example of a kid-friendly show that does this extraordinarily well, see “Shrek.”)
Though the show belongs largely to Karl, Bob Lauder is marvelous as his wizened canine sidekick Max and the show’s de facto narrator, doing his best to deliver a fresh interpretation of the tale we’re all used to hearing from Boris Karloff. As Cindy-Lou Who, Jenna Iacono makes Marvin’s treacly ballad “Santa for a Day” at least marginally bearable. (She alternates in the role with Piper Birney.)
However ho-hum the show might be were Karl not there to carry it, it counts as a big step up for Shea’s, which has had trouble in the past filling in its holiday slot with decent material. If you’re still hunting around for holiday fare for the family, you could do much worse than “The Grinch.”