Thieving 'Grinch' as a Musical? Who'da Thunk It?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For holiday audiences, here's some great news.

The Old Globe's new musical is one that can't lose.

It comes from a story by the funny Dr. Seuss.

It's a tale where the Grinch plays a ruse on the Whos.

*

OK, we'll try to cease the Seussisms. It's just that Timothy Mason's libretto and lyrics for "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" at the Old Globe make writing faux-Seuss look like so much fun that you want to try it at home.

Not that the original 1957 text is discarded, but by itself it's too short. It needed elaboration to become a musical adaptation.

In its tale of how the mean green Grinch changed from a Christmas-wrecking neighbor of the Whos into their friend, the book gave the Grinch a sudden epiphany, perhaps too sudden for dramatic purposes. The new musical has little Cindy-Lou Who and the Grinch's dog Max playing much larger roles in the Grinch's conversion.

Even better, this version acknowledges some hitherto unexplored adult emotions, making this show parent-friendly as well as kid-friendly. The grown-up Whos sing about the stress of the holiday season in "Last Minute Shopping." The lyrics sound downright heretical in the mouths of Whos--who are depicted as little more than smiley-faces in the book.

Best of all, the Grinch has a brilliant solo, "One of a Kind," in which he examines his solitary status with Sondheimian wit, set to a show-stopping melody by composer Mel Marvin.

It's the highlight of a spectacular, potentially career-defining performance by Guy Paul as the Grinch. Using a quivering tongue, spidery fingers and an array of serpentine smiles and sneers, in addition to his fuzzy green fur, Paul perfectly embodies and embellishes the "wonderful awful" thoughts expressed by the Grinch in the book. His naughty glee is like that of the "Cabaret" emcee.

The Grinch's long-suffering servant Max is divided into two roles--the older canine (Don Lee Sparks) who narrates, recalling the story from his youth, and the younger Max (Rusty Ross) who takes part in the action. Sparks has a long face and an eloquent voice, ideal for a dog's remembrances of things past, and Ross exudes youthful sincerity.

Cindy-Lou Who (Tiffany Scarritt, alternating with Vanessa A. Hudgens) is the character most changed from the book, where she appears only briefly as a gullible toddler, "not more than 2." Here she's closer to 8 or 10, and her innocent charm almost single-handedly stops the Grinch in his larcenous tracks. His memory of that encounter later preys on his mind and helps him see the error of his ways. Scarritt looks like Alice in Wonderland and sings like Annie.

The rest of the cast takes care to make each Who fairly distinctive, and they bring the action into the aisles at several moments, so kids can get close-up looks. The kids might also appreciate the snow that falls on the audience as the Whos lead a sing-along of "Deck the Halls."

The designers had a field day, starting outside the theater, where the plaza is decorated with Who cut-outs and a large inflatable Grinch whose foot can be punched. Inside the theater, the eyes of the little Whos who are pictured on the front curtain start lighting up as the show is about to begin.

Onstage, the houses of Who-Ville and the Grinch's lair display broad Seussian strokes, and the big picture of Who-Ville is seen on a miniature hillside where steam rises from chimneys and puppet Whos come out to play. But the crowning glory of John Lee Beatty's set is a remarkable reenactment of the Grinch's sleigh ride through the snow, with Max serving as chauffeur.

Robert Morgan emphasizes the pear-shaped figures of the Whos in his clever costumes, and he creates a wide variety of whimsical shoes and fanciful hairdos.

With the box office already breaking records, this "Grinch" is a smash. Director Jack O'Brien has brought it off with polish and panache.

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"How the Grinch Stole Christmas!"

* "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!," Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Wednesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Also Friday, Dec. 23-24, 30-31, 2 p.m.; Dec. 24 and 31, 5 p.m. Dark Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Ends Jan. 3. $34-$39; age 17 and under, $17-$19.50. (619) 239-2255. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes (no intermission).

Guy Paul: The Grinch

Don Lee Sparks: Old Max

Rusty Ross: Young Max

Vanessa A. Hudgens or Tiffany Scarritt: Cindy-Lou Who

Steve Gunderson: J.P. Who

Melinda Gilb: Mama Who

Robert MacAulay: Grandpa Seth Who

Leigh Scarritt: Grandma Who

Bix Bettwy: Boo Who

Ashley Kruger: Annie Who

Johnathan Johnson: Danny Who

Megan Strahm: Betty-Lou Who

Based on Dr. Seuss' book. Book and lyrics by Timothy Mason. Music by Mel Marvin. Directed by Jack O'Brien. Set by John Lee Beatty. Costumes by Robert Morgan. Lighting by Pat Collins. Sound by Jeff Ladman. Choreography by John DeLuca. Musical director Phil Reno. Stage manager D. Adams.

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