"Góðan daginn," says Stefan Karl, returning the "good morning" greeting in his native Icelandic language.
Karl, who stars in the holiday musical "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," was speaking from Indianapolis by phone where he is rehearsing for the tour that officially kicks off Tuesday, Nov. 20, for a six-day run at the Mortensen Hall at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford.
For Karl, who divides his time between San Francisco and Iceland (which has a population of 319,000), this is his fifth go-round in the iconic verdant role — and in Hartford he will be playing his 300th performance. But it's not the first time he has created a nasty kid-friendly character that is so widely popular around the world.
He also plays Robbie Rotten in the TV series, "LazyTown," which began in Iceland in 2004 and is currently shown on PBS Sprout, CBS and in 150 countries worldwide.
"They're both bad guys but in the end, they're also both big softies," says Karl. "To play a bad guy well, you have to be a very nice person yourself."
For the role of the Grinch, Karl returned to the illustrated children's book ("the show is like a pop-up version of the book") and the animated TV special that was supervised by Dr. Seuss, (Theodore Seuss Geisel, who was born in Springfield, Mass.) "It gave me an idea of how Dr. Seuss wanted his character to move," he says.
Karl says anyone can related to the Grinch. "We all hate Christmas in the same way, hating the whole consumer craziness of buying stuff and more stuff. People just go nuts. But it all comes down to a wonderful moment when the family all sits down together over a family dinner. And that's what the Grinch is trying to tell us. That's all he wants and we all can connect with that."
Icelandic holiday traditions are far removed from those in the U.S.
"To begin with, we have 13 Santa Clauses, not just one, and most of them are on the dark side. Basically, they're there to steal Christmas one by one [one per day] with the last one — a candle snatcher — there to steal the light, which is the worst thing you can do, right?"
But Karl says that his country's Christmas tradition became history "when the Coca-Cola Company came along, promoting the guy in the red suit. And now that figure of Christmas has become an international thing. Everyone went with that."
Karl is the father of four children ages 3 to 17 and he read them all Dr. Seuss books — including the story of the Grinch. "It's a beautiful story that all children can understand whether they're 5 or 95. We all feel the same thing. It's all about family."
The musical began as a commission by The Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis. This current non-Equity tour is based on the production originally directed by Jack O'Brien at The Old Globe in San Diego where it has become a holiday tradition.
The show's book and lyrics are by Timothy Mason and the music is by Mel Marvin, who was associated with Hartford Stage, during artistic director Mark Lamos' tenure, and worked on "The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm," "Tintypes"). The touring show also features several songs from the TV animated version of "Grinch:" "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and "Welcome Christmas," written by Albert Hague and Dr. Seuss. The touring production is staged by Matt August, who directed the world premiere of "16 Wounded" at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.
Do people recognize Karl without his green make-up?
"Sometimes, especially when I do certain facial expressions," he laughs. But, he says, a surprising number recognize him as Robbie Rotten from the TV series, "LazyTown."
Karl is also a classical actor who studied at the Dramatic Academy of Iceland and whose work for the National Theatre of Iceland included the title role in "Cyrano de Bergerac," Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Cosmo in "Singin' in the Rain" and Jake Quinn in "Stones in His Pockets."
He also founded Rainbow Children 10 years ago, an anti-bullying organization.
"I did that because I was bullied myself and I was a bully," he says. "Now it's become a transformational organization. We work with the government and today we have had great success and it's taught in every school [in Iceland]."
The group's its five-minute long anti-bullying clips are available through http://www.Ted.com.
Karl travels back and forth between Iceland and the United States. In February he returns to his native country to film the next round of "LazyTown" adventures.
HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS THE MUSICAL will play 11 performances from Tuesday to Sunday, Nov. 20 to 25, at Mortensen Hall at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 20 and 21 at 7 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, Nov. 23 and 24 at 11 a.m., 2 and 7 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 25 at 11 a.m.,2 and 5 p.m. There is no performance on Thanksgiving. Information: 860-987-5900 and http://www.bushnell.org..
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