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How the Grinch Stole the Stage From the Bard

Pat Launer is a theater writer based in San Diego

Not since Ebenezer Scrooge has anyone hated Christmas this much. He’s a mean one, Mr. Grinch. And now, he’s bringing all his Who-hating meanness and greenness to San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre. A stage musical of the Dr. Seuss classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” opens tonight in Balboa Park.

Just to set the record straight, the Grinch wasn’t always green. When first created in 1957 by Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), the Grinch was, like all the other characters in the book, drawn in black-and-white, with touches of red or pink. Only in 1966, for the animated version Dr. Seuss co-created with Chuck Jones, did the Grinch turn green. And he’ll probably always be remembered that way. He remains so in the newly revised musical (book and lyrics by Timothy Mason, music by Mel Marvin), which premiered in 1997 at the Children’s Theatre of Minneapolis.

The show follows the story of the Grinch, who lives alone and isolated above Whoville and hates the happy Whos for their noisiness and their camaraderie, and especially, for their love of Christmas. So he sets out to “steal” Christmas from them, by taking their presents and stripping away all the holiday trappings (including the Who-hash and roast beast). But after a perilous sleigh ride with his trusty dog Max, the Grinch is forced to take a journey of the heart.

The framing device of the new revision is Old Max as narrator--an aging, bespectacled dog looking back on his youth, and the time he lived on the hill with the Grinch. According to costume designer Robert Morgan, Max (played by funnyman Don Sparks, an Old Globe associate artist) is a “gray, tweedy, overcoated guy [who] somewhat resembles Mr. Geisel/Dr. Seuss--with a tail.”

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To open up the festivities even further, the plaza outside the theater has been transformed into Whoville, a “whimsical winter wonderland” free to the public, through Jan. 3. In addition, 10% of tickets for the show will be underwritten and provided free to underprivileged children. All those under 17 get in at half-price.

This presentation marks a series of firsts for the Globe: first Christmas show ever, first family-oriented production and the first time a Globe cast is primarily local (seven adults and 20 children, ages 7 to 16--more local actors than at any time since the Globe went professional decades ago). “This show is not for export or exploitation,” says Globe artistic director Jack O’Brien. “This one’s for the home team.”

So, how does a director of O’Brien’s stature, whose work ranges from Shakespeare to Broadway musicals, find himself shepherding a flock of kids around a stage in funny Who-suits?

“The story is timeless,” he explains. “The drama of a soul in transition, unthawing. It’s been potent since Shakespeare, and it still is. We’re always trying to express intrinsic truths.”

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In other words, a classic.

“The piece is really pan-religious,” O’Brien continues. “It’s not just about Christmas. It’s about values and alien spirits, prejudices, people afraid of each other. Long before ‘E.T.,’ it concerned something scary and ugly that you grow to love. This innocent child [Cindy-Lou Who] unlocks the heart of this awful man. And there’s also the idea that someone can come and try to take away what they think you love, only to find what you really loved was what they couldn’t see.”

What the creative/design team wants the audience to see is an exact re-creation of the book--not a copy of the animated version, and not informed or threatened by the upcoming Jim Carrey “Grinch” film or “Seussical,” the (currently on hold) Livent stage musical extravaganza.

Tony Award-winning scenic designer John Lee Beatty re-created the book in three dimensions using just four colors. He found it “absolutely fascinating reinterpreting, sculpturally, two-dimensional drawings,” he says. “Dr. Seuss was a very liberated illustrator; nothing was holding him down to the page. He had a crazy-intelligent way of looking at the world. So everything is designed to enormous scale, 360 degrees around, to rotate into something else.”

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There are seven sets for this 80-minute piece, and many back-and-forth changes. “I feel a huge responsibility to the kids and to Dr. Seuss,” Beatty says. “There’ll be a lot of movement, a lot of surprises. It’s always a precarious situation for the Grinch.”

Costume designer Robert Morgan had an even greater challenge. “The first thing I did,” he says, “was try to draw, line for line, exactly the same figures as Ted Geisel did, and connect the dots to make it three-dimensional. It was a spectacular failure. I had to take the energy and spirit of his drawings; I couldn’t take them literally.”

Instead, he gave all the Whos podlike torsos and imaginative, eccentric clothes with geometric patterns and shapes reminiscent of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. The Grinch starts out “a muddy, ugly gray-green,” but after his redemption, his shaggy, hairy body becomes a bright, vibrant Christmas-wreath green.

Inside the furry costume is Broadway veteran Guy Paul, who originated the role in Minneapolis. “He was hilariously funny,” O’Brien says. “I hired him immediately.”

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At the first rehearsal, O’Brien addressed the youngest cast members, exhorting them to remember the first time someone they love took them to see a play, and how they got excited and enthralled and thought, “I wanna be up there doing that.”

“That day,” he said, “is something you’ll probably never forget. And the reason we’re doing this piece is for other youngsters out there for whom this will be the first time. Without knowing them, you will be changing their lives. This is one of the gifts we can give each other, this strange transfer of imagination, this little miracle, this wonderful mystery in the dark.

“Go back to that time,” he advised the children as well as the adults who were present. “Go there to the place where it all started.” The kids were wide-eyed and silent, the adults thoughtfully reminiscent. It was a magical moment. As each costume design and set-piece was shown to the children, their excitement grew.

Shortly before previews began, O’Brien was energized but surprisingly calm. “It’s gorgeous to look at, an irresistible story, and we’re doing it for all the right reasons. It’s as close to a spiritual indoctrination of what theater does as I’ve ever seen. The whole thing is very moving.”

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Audrey Geisel agrees. The lively, 77-year-old widow lives in Seuss House, the La Jolla home where her husband, who died in 1991, created the Grinch four decades ago. “I’ve always thought that our local Old Globe needed a Christmas presentation,” she said. “Forget about cracking the nuts--something truly for San Diego.”

As president of Dr. Seuss Enterprises and the Dr. Seuss Foundation, Audrey Geisel oversees most Dr. Seuss projects and philanthropic endeavors--"I have all the properties and Seussian critters to guard and cherish,” she says. She gave the Globe nonexclusive, renewable rights to “The Grinch"--for 10 years, as a gift to San Diego and a tribute to her late husband.

“When I saw the rehearsal, it was a very emotional experience for me. I was totally, wonderfully happy with it. This little part of America,” she says, “will have the Grinch for Christmas indefinitely, because it belongs here.”

But that doesn’t negate the potential use of the Grinch in “Seussical,” or the Universal/Ron Howard movie about the Grinch (“Jim Carrey is heaven-sent, perfect for the Grinch,” she says). Other Seuss projects in the works included Universal’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” and the DreamWorks filming of “The Cat in the Hat” (with Tim Allen).

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“My Seuss cup runneth over,” Geisel says, beaming. “I don’t need to write a book; I’m living it. Now, the Grinch is coming home. My goal is to turn this town into a perennial Merry Grinchmas and Happy Who-year.”

*

“HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS,” Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Dates: Opens today. Regular schedule: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Wednesdays and Thursdays, 11 a.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Dark Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days. Ends Jan. 3. Prices: $17-$39. Phone: (619) 239-2255.


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