By Martin F. Kohn
With songs that vanish from memory even as they’re being sung, an ensemble garbed in reds, whites and pinks, looking like a bowl of candy canes left on the stove, and choreography straight out of a grade-school show – everyone take two steps to the right, everyone take two steps to the left, everyone raise both hands way up – “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” begins inauspiciously even for a kid-friendly holiday musical.
But a little more than halfway through the 90-minute, intermissionless production, something wonderful happens: The show gets very good very fast. Either that or somebody’s heart just grew three sizes.
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” gets better when the Grinch comes down the mountain to swipe all the Yuletide goodies – presents, stockings, Christmas dinners, decorations, even trees – from the relentlessly cheery Whos down in Whoville in their reds, whites and pinks. The tale zeroes in on its handful of main characters and suddenly, there’s action. The Grinch, played by Stefan Karl with rollicking, child-friendly menace, scoops up presents and tosses or soccer-kicks them to his dog, young Max (Seth Bazacas), who deftly catches the objects in an oversized pillowcase; at one point he executes a sliding catch worthy of the Tigers’ Austin Jackson.
Meanwhile, the older version of Max (Bob Lauder), who serves as narrator and sometime participant, sings “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” with deep-voiced gusto, and subsequently reprises it as a sing-along which, judging by the response, is precisely what the audience has been waiting for. Later on, the Grinch himself engages in some audience give-and-take, which Karl manages with consummate skill: The kiddies get to holler their lungs out but things always stay under control.
And then there is little Cindy Lou Who, an adorable child with a big, Broadway voice (Jenna Iacono at the performance I attended; she alternates with Georgia Kay Wise). Cindy Lou’s big number occurs as she wakes up from a bad dream and discovers the Grinch disguised as Santa Claus. “Oh no,” says the Grinch, “it’s a ballad.”
It is, indeed, and it’s one of just a couple of decent new songs in the musical. At least the two standards from the original 1966 TV special – “Welcome, Christmas” and the aforementioned “Mr. Grinch” – have been retained, as has enough of Dr. Seuss’ original poetry to make fans of the original feel at home.
You take risks when you make a 90-minute stage show out of a 30-minute TV cartoon. Some pay off, some are problematic. Like Santa’s sack, it’s a mixed bag. And it is, ultimately, a gift for the holidays.
Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical
Broadway in Detroit at the Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway St., Detroit. Tuesday-Sunday through Dec. 30; no performance Dec. 25. 90 minutes. $29-$62. 313-872-1000. http://www.broadwayindetroit.com