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He’s a fit one, Mr. Grinch

Stefan Karl performs as The Grinch, with Seth Bazacas as Young Max.
(PaparazziByAppointment.com)

Look over your shoulder.

There’s a thief on the prowl this holiday season. He is irritated by the happiness of others, spoils other people’s merriment and has termites in his smile.

The grouchy recluse is coming to Segerstrom Center for the Arts, and he’s already scheming about how to stop Christmas.

That’s right, the Grinch is coming to town.

“This place called Costa Mesa — I’ve heard such horrible things about it and I think it really needs my help stealing Christmas,” he growled by phone the day before Thanksgiving.

The Grinch is annoyed about the state of Whoville. The warm-hearted Whos are busy as always, shopping for presents.

And Max, his unloved but loyal dog, is still an unwitting accomplice to several of the Grinch’s crimes, including but not limited to breaking and entering, burglary, trespassing and violating a restraining order.

“The dog is great,” the voice at the other end snarled. “As long he does the things I tell him to do.”

He’s a vile one, that Mr.Grinch.

But underneath those devilish eyebrows, greedy yellow eyes and scowl of the grumpy character is a man who couldn’t be more opposite — despite his jokes suggesting otherwise.

He’s also not furry green, like the character he portrays.

It’s Icelandic actor Stefan Karl, who is best known for playing the villain Robbie Rotten on the live-action show “LazyTown.” The stage actor and comedian says getting into the Grinch role isn’t much of a stretch.

“We’re very much related,” Karl said with a laugh from the play’s current stop, in Spokane, Wash.

Granted he must know the character well. When the actor steps onto the Segerstron stage Dec. 10, he will be playing the role in Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical” for his 470th time.

“Once you’ve done it so often, you begin to think about every step and you play that with the audience,” Karl said.

The holiday story, published in 1957, is the tale of the Grinch, who decides to stop Christmas by stealing presents, trees and food from the unsuspecting people of Whoville. Eventually he discovers there’s more to Christmas than he bargained for in his original plan.

“If you think about it, it’s a very relevant story,” Karl said. “It’s a great reminder for families to remember what Christmas is about. Why do we rush down to Black Friday? Is it for our family or just for the discount? What is it that we really need?

“We need Cindy Lou Who, who goes, ‘Why?’ We should listen to children and what they have to say. That’s what the Grinch has taught me about Christmas.”

Segerstrom President Terry Dwyer said he was thrilled to welcome the classic tale.

“It’s an iconic, heartwarming story for the entire country, and it’s a great way to welcome the holidays,” said Dwyer, who plans to take his wife and family to see the Broadway hit.

“It’s charming for adults and children,” he added. “You can’t help but smile.”

The musical production is big on tradition, featuring familiar songs like “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” and “Welcome Christmas.” And the Grinch’s nasty seaweed-color costume is just as familiar.

Playing the Grinch, Karl said, has demanded that he be in good physical condition. Though his costume looks heavy, Karl said the suit’s weight is not the problem. It’s the heat it generates.

“It looks like a torture, and if someone wasn’t in shape, I’m sure they’d faint and fall on stage, but you have to train for it,” he said.

The show, Karl said, is comparable to taking an aerobics class. Four times a week, he goes to the gym, practices cardio, eats healthy and drinks plenty of water. It’s important to stay fit since the touring production is on schedule to perform in nine cities during 11 weeks. Going through different temperatures, from an elevation of 6,000 feet to sea level, can take its toll on the actors too.

A recent show in Albuquerque, N.M., required oxygen tanks on set.

“Thank God we didn’t have to use that,” Karl said. “You definitely have to control your breathing and give your lungs that extra push to breathe.”

Despite the challenging obstacles in certain cities, Karl said his preparation to keep the role fresh comes from the audience. Before walking onstage, he stands to the side curtain, listening to children and families settle into their seats.

“I remind myself why I’m doing this,” Karl said. “The reason is because it’s such a privilege to be a part of all these children’s lives. Many are seeing theater for the first time, and it’s up to me and us to make their experience magical.”

When he hears the sounds of children’s laughter, Karl said, it encourages him to go on.

Karl, 39, who is married to an actress and has four children, is also founder and director of the nonprofit Regnbogaborn (Rainbow-Children), an organization created to bring awareness and solutions to school bullying.

He said he and his wife have taught their children to value Christmas in a different way. The family puts up a small tree and his children are happy receiving gloves as a present. There isn’t a wrapped up Wii or PlayStation.

Though he finds beauty in his hometown of Hafnarfjörður, a port town on the southwest coast of Iceland, he said he loves Orange County.

“I can’t wait to see friends, and the sun is shining and the whole atmosphere is about relaxing,” he said.

“Who knows, maybe I’ll retire there on the beach,” Karl said, then paused. “The Grinch on the beach. I like that.”

IF YOU GO

What: Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical”

When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 10; 1 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12; 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 13; 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Dec. 14

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: Tickets start at $29

Information: (714) 556-2787 or visit scfta.org


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