Published in Theatremania December 2000
Who’s on first?
This season, Whoville has become Main Street, USA. On stage and screen, from coast to coast, the Whos are eating Who hash. And re-hash.
There’s no question Who’s on top financially. That would be Jim Carrey and Ron Howard, from their multimillion dollar, overblown Whotenanny, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” But there’s a smaller scale, sweeter, Whoopla going on here in San Diego… the stage version of the same story.
Since Audrey Geisel, the widow of the late, great Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel) remains a San Diego resident, she was enormously influential and supportive in getting the Grinch up on the stage of the Old Globe Theatre. But what on earth was she thinking in her involvement with that movie monstrosity?
The book, you may recall, was a sweet little valentine to Christmas (if that isn’t mixing holiday metaphors). Dr. Seuss was prescient when he wrote it in nearly a half-century ago, to shake a warning finger at wintertime materialism. Well, he’s surely rolling over in his grave now (if not from our overspending overkill, then from what’s been done to his book).
There’s no question that the story is as relevant as ever, and not just at Christmastime. Our values are eternally questioned (and questionable) these days. But there’s something else in the book, too… the notion that someone can come and try to take away the thing you think you love. And you find that what you really loved was something no one could see or steal.
So how did that turn into such a dark, ungracious and uninspiring movie? Onscreen, the Whos, instead of being peaceable, Christmas-loving folk, are not only nasty, they’re ugly (and their mothers dress them funny!). There’s absolutely none of the whimsy or fantasy of the Seuss original there. This Grinch is not just “a mean one”; he’s a coarse, gross and hyperactive one– badly in need of a double-dose of Ritalin.
Carrey plays to our baser instincts. Onstage, Guy Paul plays to the kids — and they love to hate him, squealing with mock fear. Carrey just gives his signature sneer, revealing ugly, stained, misaligned teeth (and we could do without the bugs crawling over them). His Grinch-lair is some dank, high/low tech Batman cave on a bad acid trip. And who cares if these Whos get their Christmas or not… they’re a thoroughly unlikable (and unattractive) community. Except, of course, young Cindy Lou Who, with her rabbit teeth (she hasn’t yet grown her ugly pig-nose), and her fascination for the Grinch. This CindyLou doesn’t just get awakened by the Grinch mid-Christmas-theft, as in the original; she goes after him, scaling his forbidding mountain and interviewing all the older Whos to find out his back-story. Ugh.
In order to fill an evening or afternoon, both incarnations had to develop some sort of backdrop to the story. Howard decided to go back to the future (again) to the Grinch’s childhood, to show how he was rejected by the Whos for his hairy face (didn’t anyone notice those clawed hands??). Oh, so that’s why “his heart was two sizes too small.” A myocardial infarction would have been a more inspired explanation.
In the stage version (book and lyrics by Timothy Mason, music by Mel Marvin, sprightly direction by Jack O’Brien) the framing device is Old Max as narrator, an aging, bespectacled dog looking back on his frisky youth, and the time when he lived on the hill with the Green Meanie. None of the songs is as good as the ones from the Chuck Jones cartoon, but there is such a syrupy sentimentalism to the story, you can’t help but succumb.
What’s undoubtedly best about the Globe version is the look of the piece. Scenic designer John Lee Beatty and costume designer Robert Morgan have manufactured a miracle, making the entire book come springing to life in three dimensions and three colors: black, white and red (with a little pink thrown in, just as Dr. Seuss drew it). The Whos have that big-bottomed pear-shaped cartoonish look, and their tri-colored clothes are incredibly inventive. It all just screams good, sweet, silly fun, and to top it off, there’s the hair-raising, gift-stealing sleigh ride recreated in miniature, and a snowfall through most of the theater.
Sure, it gets treacly (the song Cindy Lou sings in both versions is pretty gaggy), but the best part of all is watching the kids, with eyes and mouths wide open, gaping at the wonder and splendor of the show, and the thrill of seeing their talented neighborhood peers up there, singing their hearts out and having a ball. Guaranteed more than a few new theatergoers are born at every performance.
And what exactly would they walk away from the movie with — A headache? Zillions of people will see that film (no matter how badly it was panned by critics), and maybe only San Diegans (and tourists) will see the smaller-scale “Grinch.” But there’s no question which audience gets a better taste of Who-manity.
[In its third sellout season, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” continues at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, through December 31].
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.