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How the Grinch Stole the Stage From the Bard

The Old Globe, known for its Shakespeare, puts on a classic of another sort, by a favorite son of San Diego.

November 22, 1998|PAT LAUNER | 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."

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."

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."

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.

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