Since 1957, when the original Dr. Seuss book was published, people have been enamored with the furry green grouch who hates the holiday season. So much so, in fact, that the word “Grinch” has come to refer to someone who resembles the character in temperament, if not in shape. So it’s no surprise that Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical broke records on Broadway and opened to resounding applause in Boston’s Wang Theatre.
The musical follows the classic story fairly closely—one that all but the youngest audience members are intimately familiar with by now. “Every Who down in Whoville liked Christmas a lot. But the Grinch, who lived just north of Whoville, did not.” The Grinch formulates a plan to steal Christmas from the noisy and cheery Whos by dressing up as Santa Claus and stealing all of their presents and decorations and “the log for their fire” with help from his dog, Max. But, when the Grinch realizes that Christmas still came for the Whos, and that they delight in spending time with each other for the holiday more than any material good, he comes to understand “the true meaning of Christmas” and returns everything. Happily ever after.
Even though the story is old, the musical made it feel brand new. Instead of Boris Karloff as the narrator, an elderly version Max (Ken Land) tells the story in a series of “flashbacks.” Directed by Matt August, The Musical begins with a bang. A large song-and-dance by the vibrantly dressed and made-up Whos starts the action of the show. With costumes designed by Robert Morgan changing the shape of the actors’ bodies into something sufficiently Seuss-like, the musical does a fantastic job in creating a truly live-action version of a cartoony story (discounting the 2000 film starring Jim Carrey, which this musical is better than). The audience is introduced to the largely secondary characters—Cindy Lou Who (Mackenzie Mercer), Papa Who (Danny Gurwin), Mama Who (Jacquelyn Piro Donovan)—as the focus of the goings-on in Whoville. We also meet the young Max (Aleksa Kurbalija) and with him, the star of the show.
The Grinch (Gavin Lee) truly does steal the show, even if he ends up returning Christmas. There’s something about this character, in all his iterations, that makes him so compelling and so enjoyable to watch. But attributing the whole of this show’s enjoyment to the character would be doing a disservice to Lee. The actor absolutely blows it out of the water. He is both dastardly and relatable, funny and pitiable. His timing is perfect, pausing so as not to step on the laughs or applause that his lines win. He is cartoonish in his mannerisms, playing up the ridiculousness of his extra long and furry fingers. His facial expressions, combined with the extensive makeup he wears, give his reactions an amplifying effect that reaches all the way to the higher levels of the theatre. At times Lee as the Grinch would turn to address the audience, garnering guffaws and applause, as well as the consternation of Old Max as the narrator shouted, “Don’t encourage him.”
Performed with a live orchestra, the music for the show works to complement the comedy beats and the moments of emotion. Standouts among the musical numbers include “One of a Kind,” “It’s the Thought That Counts,” and, of course, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” But this is not to say that the other songs weren’t good. The musical numbers throughout the show never felt tiresome like they might in other musicals. They were sung beautifully and well, and none of them went on for too long.
This show’s arrival in Boston is just in time for the holiday season, even though it has a short run. Its timing with The Grinch, the animated movie released this November, seems purely coincidental. But if choosing between which version to enjoy this holiday season, the musical has the movie beat on all fronts.
SEUSS’S HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS! THE MUSICAL. 11.29–12.9. BOCH CENTER WANG THEATRE, 270 TREMONT ST., BOSTON.