The enduring appeal of The Grinch is easy to explain, but its contradictory message is not. Written in rhymed verse with whimsical illustrations, a mean green creature hates Christmas and steals presents and food from the Whos in Who-ville. They sing and celebrate anyway.
Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Oh please, everyone knows Christmas comes from Amazon.com.
In his colorful picture book, “Dr. Seuss” – Theodore Geisel criticizes the commercialization of Christmas. He was brushing his teeth and thought something was wrong with Christmas or himself. He was inspired to write about a sour friend back in 1957, when families gathered around one TV to watch Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show.
His fable was adapted as a Christmas special twice. The 1966 TV animation starring Boris Karloff as narrator and voice of The Grinch remains a beloved tradition. The 2000 film starring Jim Carrey sends the creep meter off the charts.
Our favorite characters leap from worn and sticky pages in Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas at the Old Globe in its 18th year. It’s filled with strange creatures who sing show tunes and remind us of someone. There’s a warm and mixed up message.
The Who-Chestra sounds delightful. Snowflakes fall. Families spend big bucks to see the show, but they’re together. The spirit of Christmas and its commercialization are knitted together like an old Christmas stocking, with holes we don’t see.
Initially created by Jack O’Brian, the holiday treat retains the stale candy cane palette from the book – red, white and pink. Whole pages from the book are enlarged. The red panel of wide-eyed Whos from the book cover fills the stage. Their eyes light up yellow.
Costumes designed by Robert Morgan are beyond bizarre and give the Whos insectoid bodies. Women get happy exaggerated pear shapes. The guys all have saggy diaper-like bottoms. Curly shoes and soft-serve wigs are eye-candy.
Sets by John Lee Beatty mirror the melting cupcake houses from the book. The roast beast drawn with inks on stark white cardboard is a giant cut out from the book.
Those details appeal to devoted fans. San Diegans are especially loyal because Geisel lived the last half of his life in San Diego. He drove a Cadillac with “GRINCH” license plates. Grinch groupies known as Grinchies are invited to sing along with “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch,” from the TV special.
The Grinch, played with smooth hip hoppish style by J. Bernard Calloway, is a giant in road-kill green fur.
Calloway was a football linebacker and became an actor on television and Broadway. Many know him from Tony-Award-winning shows such as Memphis and All the Way. He’s a scary Scrooge with cat-like nails, but not vulgar. He doesn’t copy Jim Carrey’s rubbery face from the movie version. His tough-guy Grinch has a street swagger and genuine physicality. Watch for his hiccup-stroll across the stage in those too-tight shoes. Calloway’s unorthodox interpretation makes the show feel timeless.
The lyrics for “You’re a Mean One, Mr.Grinch” were written by Geisel. Music was composed by Albert Hague. Thurl Ravenscroft performed the song for the TV special. He was best known as the voice of Tony the Tiger and others in Disney films and attractions. Young Max, Old Max, and The Grinch sing it in the Old Globe Production.
“You’re a mean one Mr. Grinch
You really are a heel.
You’re as cuddly as a cactus,
And as charming as an eel,
You’re a bad banana,
With a greasy black peel!
You’re a monster, Mr. Grinch!
Your heart’s an empty hole.
Your brain is full of spiders.
You’ve got garlic in your soul,
I wouldn’t touch you
With a thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pole!”
The 2015 production directed by James Vasquez needs that fresh staging. While the TV special runs about 25 minutes, the stage show feels a bit stuffed. Lines of rhyming verse and songs and a 90-minute run time may be too much for some youngsters.
Calloway’s sparkling rendition of “One of a Kind” may steal the show. His sharp delivery is in the realm of Samuel L. Jackson. Imagine Jules, the hitman-philosopher in the film Pulp Fiction reciting, “If I can’t find a reindeer, I’ll make one instead!”
Prepare to flinch when he scolds his young dog Max, played by a tail-wagging Blake Segal with a single antler tied to his perky head. You’ll cringe when he wraps his claws around little Cindy-Lou Who, played by alternating young stars Taylor Coleman and Mikee Castillo.
When the little Who gets ready for her big solo, he turns to the crowd and grumbles, “Oh, it’s a ballad.” It’s the best line of the show before it slips into syrupy sweet song and dialogue.
Steve Gunderson helps move things along as narrator and homeless Old Max, the Grinch’s abused accomplice from the past. He looks back on the terrible thievery, and confuses those raised on the TV special. Who is that guy in the coat? Why don’t I hear Boris Karloff?
The Grinch evokes many discussions, exactly as Geisel intended when he wrote the book. Christmas isn’t about buying things. It’s about singing and holding hands! But before we can hold hands and absorb the message, we are compelled to go shopping. Is this a Grinch conspiracy?
We fondle Grinch dolls and neon green trinkets at the theater gift shop. My companion can’t resist a Grinch coffee mug. In Grinchy style, it does not say Merry Christmas and is Grinch green, not red, which will evoke conversation in and around Starbucks during the holiday season that starts earlier every year.
The Grinch runs through Dec. 26. A sensory-friendly performance is set for Dec. 12 at 10:30. Designed for children on the autistic spectrum and their families, and those with special needs, the show has slight adjustments, such as fewer loud noises and flashing lights. For more information, contact the Old Globe. www.theoldglobe.org