PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! — A Drenched Grinch

By Harry Haun
November 9, 2006

Into every life some rain must fall, but Nov. 8 was a deluge for Republicans and grinches alike. The elements turned out full force to "welcome" Kid Lit's most notorious holiday spoiler to the Hilton in Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical.

If the stars were out, they were under the slickers and umbrellas, shielding themselves from the hammering rain. It was a mess to get into the lobby, and a soggy slog to get to your seat. Along one corridor, on a pedestal primed for a photo opt for any stars who cared to avail themselves, sat—impassively (thank God!)—Bullseye, the Target dog.

One real and true star did show, and he shone like a silver dollar—Old Sundance himself, Robert Redford. It was believed to be his first Broadway opening night since Oct. 23, 1963, when he and Elizabeth Ashley opened in a little Neil Simon amusement called Barefoot in the Park. The rest is movie history so some explanation was required.

Grinch director Matt August supplied one. "I asked him," he said, leading with the short answer. "For me, he was my girlfriend's father. I'm partners with his daughter, and we have been partners for three and a half years. It was very nice of him to come because my parents are here and all of her folks are here so it's a family event for everybody."

Amy Redford doubts if her dad will ever act again on the stage but refuses to close the door shut. "You never know," she postscripted. Meanwhile, she is holding up her end for the family eight times a week at the Cherry Lane Theatre, performing a powerfully played and written domestic drama by Daisy Foote titled Bhutan.

Redford also added that, although her father is not physically on Broadway, his handiwork is—via shows that workshopped and lifted off at his Sundance Theatre Lab. Grey Gardens, which bowed last week, took root there two years ago next month. Two years before that, Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel started focusing there on The Light in the Piazza (the very first mother of the bride-to-be, back then, was Mary Cleere Haran).

Guettel is pulling together a two-week workshop of Broadway Show No. 2—The Princess Bride, which he is writing to William Goldman's book—with some musical pals to try his new songs out on their voices: A Chorus Line's Mara Davi and Michael Berresse; Berresse's bro from Piazza, Matthew Morrison; Judy Blazer; Brian Stokes Mitchell (whose wife, Allyson Tucker, is Mehitabel to Lee Zarrett's Archie in Musicals Tonite's Shinbone Alley, through Nov. 19 at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre); Douglas Sills, and Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me's Brooks Ashmanskas.

Sills said he was in town primarily to work on a new play about Alexander Hamilton for Abingdon Theatre Company and help Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty in the reworking of their unsuccessful 1993 musical, My Favorite Year. He'll play an Errol Flynn type. Once a Scarlet Pimpernel, always a Scarlet Pimpernel. (That color could have got him cast as David O. Selznick, come to think of it.)

Tony winners attending the Grinch: Contact's Karen Ziemba, La Cage aux Folles choreographer (turning director with Legally Blonde) Jerry Mitchell, Nine's Jane Krakowski (now in TV's "30 Rock") and Kennedy's Children's Shirley Knight (who happens to have a child on stage, playing a mom—Kaitlin Hopkins).

A Regis-less Kelly Ripa took to the stage to set the stage for the show, reading from the original Seuss book before a sudden cluster of children, advancing this in rhyme on why The Grinch wanted to ruin the Christmas for the good people of Whoville: "It could be his head wasn't screwed on just right / It could be his shoes were too tight / But I believe the most likely reason of all / May have been that his heart was two sizes too small."

The musical (book and lyrics by Timothy Mason; music by Mel Marvin) was relatively short and decidedly sweet, very family-friendly and an easy win with the small fry. John Lee Beatty's sets, based on Seuss drawings, kept young eyes busy. Richard Kind's four-and-a-half-year-old Skyler was a particularly contented customer. "She loved this," said Dad. "Are you kidding? Her arms couldn't get wide enough to clap wide enough."

By the time the play had run its course and executive producer James Sanna had finished his thank yous—including a big one to Dr. Seuss' widow, Audrey Geisel, "a loving and dedicated caretaker to all things Seussian"—the pounding rain had miraculously stopped.

First-nighters had a short walk across the street to the opening night party at Madame Tussaud's. A special room had been set aside for all to mix and mingle with the mighty and mute. Tony Bennett, Harrison Ford and Hugh Grant looked especially dashing in the Santa caps. All the likeliness are uncannily dead-on, save for Liz Smith, who deserves (and should demand) an immediate makeover. They missed you by a country mile, hon.

A certain journalistic nightmare began to creep into the house of wax for me. This is the first opening night I've covered in 31 years where I never met the publicist or any one from the publicity staff, so I had no one to point out the actors, who were made up beyond recognition on stage. And I was surrounded by wax facsimiles of stars I did recognize. Eerie, baby. It reminded me of an old Blake Edwards film thriller, "Experiment in Terror."

The arrival of two-time Tony winner John Cullum was so reassuring. He had been "Old Max," the man in the dog suit who narrated the story and left the heavy lifting (and climbing) to a younger man in a dog suit known as "Young Max." And he might suit up again if the show becomes a seasonal perennial. "They haven't asked me. I might be a little long in the tooth to play a dog next year. Hell, I guess I could do it with a walker."

Cullum said he drew on "my knowledge of animals, that sort of thing." And a little "Northern Exposure" didn't hurt, either: "I used to wrestle with a grizzly. What was his name? On the show, there was a big relationship between me and this grizzly. Eight and a half feet tall! It was scary. What was—Jesse! Jesse the Bear! I cried when he died."

His younger dog-self, Rusty Ross, is keen to the teaming. "When John Cullum walked into the first rehearsal the first day and we looked at each other, we were, like, 'We're the same height, we have some of the same facial qualities, this is going to be a great match.' And it has been. We've had a blast. He's just the most gracious, generous actor I've ever worked with—a standup guy. I feel so lucky first of all to have made my Broadway debut and second of all to have made it with this particular project."

The understudy for Old Max is also the understudy for The Grinch, and he got the latter job from prior training, having been the Broadway Grinch in Seussical. Otherwise, one never has trouble spotting William Ryall on the stage: "I'm the tallest of the Whos."

Another seasoned stage vet lending colorful eccentricity to the citizenry of Whoville was Jan Neuberger, who plays the dotty Grandma Who. "I love this character because she's daft," said Neuberger, an expert comedienne who does daft (most recently in Wicked).

Making a late and well-deserved entrance at the party, properly de-greened and de-grinched, was Patrick Page, exhibiting very socially acceptable behavior.

How does it feel to romp all over stage, spreading mischief and nasty deportment wherever he goes as The Grinch? He was candid: "Well, right now, it feels exhausting. We haven't had a day off in three weeks, and we do four shows a day on a Saturday, three shows on a Sunday—it's a 12-show week—so that and no days off really do it to you."

Is it any wonder his favorite moment in the show is when a little Who girl becalms and balladizes him and sings him out of his wicked, wicked ways? Plot-wise, compared to A Christmas Carol, this is like The Grinch getting Scrooged—and merry Christmas to all.