PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical — Lean, Mean and Green
By Harry Haun
For the second time in as many days, a green-skinned monster invaded Broadway: Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical bowed at the St. James on Nov. 9, one day after its previous Broadway home (the Hilton) was taken over by that rampaging mass of used body parts Young Frankenstein, stitched together and struck with lightning.
"Struck" turns out to be an unfortunate choice of word. Ten hours after its opening-night party at the Tropic Zone at Seventh and 49th Street, it became How the Stagehands Stole the Grinch. Its 11 AM Saturday matinee was the first show not to go on because of the walk out by Local One, the stagehands union, that shuttered 27 Broadway houses. And because this limited-run musical is on a 12-to-15-performance week (almost twice the normal performance schedule for Broadway shows), it stands to lose the most from the strike.
Weather-wise, it was also a rough re-entry to the Main Stem. The heavens parted and pounded the re-premiere with driving rain, much like the torrential dousing that greeted the Grinch when he first got to Broadway 364 days previously. Can this be the traditional welcome?
Although producer James Sanna is plainly hoping his Grinch will become a yearly event here — and is talking of road-company forays into places like Boston and Los Angeles at the same seasonal time — the cited reason for this season's reprise is to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Seuss' classic children's book, now a staple on the Kid Lit reading list. Sanna pointed out this little publishing footnote in his introductory remarks on stage, then introduced Teri Hatcher — a desperate housewife "and also a proud mom" — to read us into the show with a few pages from the original text.
Hatcher, wearing low-cut fire-engine red and surrounded by a gaggle of young'uns, began personally with, "Emerson, this is for you," and we were off to a color-coded holiday conflict of red states (the Christmas-crazy citizens of Whoville) versus green states (The Grinch, a lone, lonely holdout who hates all that cloying good-will-to-men stuff and relieves Whoville of its Christmas presents).
Robert Redford, no less, made the Broadway opening last year — his first since 1963 when he opened in Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park. (Why this, you ask? His actress-daughter, Amy Redford, is engaged to the show's director, Matt August.) The opening-night star-power this year was markedly down; mostly, it was a matter of family outings. M. Butterfly's Tony-winning B.D. Wong and agent Richie Jackson brought the daughter they adopted. Shubert prexy Phil Smith treated his grandkids, Campbell and James Phillips, and their parents, Linda and Martin Phillips, to this delicious bonbon. First-nighters (so far, technically, only-nighters) saw a leaner show this year — the result of a year of rethinking and retooling — but almost half of the faces were familiar. Of a cast of 39, 18 are returnees, girded and ready to go after last year's record of 12 performances a week. First and foremost is Patrick Page, who now officially owns the title role. "He's very, very close to my heart," Page admitted. The Grinch that he pitches at us is a gleefully disagreeable old grouch so full of epicene overreach, mincing menace and throaty theatricality you start to suspect under all that green war-paint lurks Kathleen Turner. He is a perpetual pyrotechnic display. Being a five-year Lumiere no doubt helped. And also: "Some of the character is based on the Grinch cartoon, the way the body moves in the cartoon, and some of it is based just in animal work, like with apes and reptiles." This would be exhausting work eight times a week, let alone 15. "So far, I haven't missed any performances," he beamed. His secret: "I do at least 45 minutes of stretching every day. I do about a half-hour of vocal warmups because the growling and shouting and all of that. I have physical therapy twice a week. I have acupuncture and massage once a week, and I have a chiropractor three times a week. I have a lot of people helping me." The theatre helps as well: "The St. James is an amazing house to play. I must say, as much as I enjoyed doing the show last year at the Hilton, there is an enormous difference here in your ability to play the audience." (Opening-night late-comers got a severely sinister glower; one shudders to think what will happen if a forgotten cellphone goes off.)
His wife, actress Paige Davis (that's right: in real life, she'ss Paige Page), returned from a national tour of Sweet Charity in time for her husband's return to Broadway. Her next stop will be resuming her hosting duties for "Trading Spaces," a reality series for cable. Also returning to the show is Rusty Ross, who plays The Grinch's dog, Young Max. There is also an Old Max (this year Ed Dixon, last year John Cullum) who narrates this tale of The Grinch's Christmas raid on Whoville. In the new and improved edition, they even get to interact in song. "It's near the beginning of the show, a duet we do called 'This Time of Year,'" said Ross, "and it sets up the idea that we're the same character. We call it 'a soft-paw number.' It's like a soft-shoe, but we're dogs so it's a 'soft-paw.'"
"I think the opening number with the two dogs just starts the show off on the right magical note," opted Jan Neuberger, who's back swinging her F. A. Who Schwartz shopping bag as dotty Grandma Who. "The other new song in the show is the shopping number, 'It's the Thought That Counts.' It's totally different from what we did before."
That song, like others in the show by composer Mel Marvin and lyricist-book writer Timothy Mason, is small-fry-friendly — melodic and accessible — and this particular one, said director August, is part of the show that has been reworked from the ground up: "There's a middle section of the show where The Grinch steals costumes to disguise himself as Santa Claus that is entirely new. Bob Richards has choreographed what is basically a six-minute production number for this new song. We have kept most of the songs in the show. We cut down the kids' song, 'Whatchama Who,' so that it's a little bit shorter — not much, but it has much more focused choreography in the new version." The director's director is twice-Tonyed Jack O'Brien, who started turning The Grinch into a Broadway song-and-dance man a decade ago at the The Old Globe and has kept a supervisory eye on the project ever since. When it finally developed that the show would make it to the Main Stem last year, O'Brien's plate was already full-to-overflowing with The Coast of Utopia so he assigned assistant August to bring 'er in. It was O'Brien, who retains the credit-line "Original Production Conceived and Directed by," who regrouped the show's creators to tinker with the show some more after its initial pass at Broadway. "We sat down with Jack O'Brien and thought very seriously about the storytelling involved in the show," recalled composer Marvin. "We felt we had to do more to develop the characters of the Whos and more to develop the beginning of the show of the two dogs so that the whole thing got a little deeper. And that was what it really was born from — just thinking about how to tell the story, which is how you write musical theatre."
O'Brien is pleased with the results. "We keep learning now about New York and what it wants. There were some trims I wanted to make. I'm excited about how it came back."
Right now he's in the happy position of being between hits — fresh from the successful London launching of Hairspray with Michael Ball in Harvey Fierstein's housedress ("I thought they were going to kill us over there. They love it. Who knew?") and getting ready for Catch Me If You Can ("That's the Hairspray alumni — Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Jerry Mitchell — plus Terrence McNally. We've got a workshop coming up.")
O'Brien figures this is John Lee Beatty's fifth set-design for Whoville in the ten years they've been doing it (it won't be his last if the show multiplies into national companies). "I know why Young Frankenstein loved that large space at the Hilton," sighed Beatty. "I had to lose about 15 feet of space backstage when I redesigned our show for the St. James. But it's amazing how much you can cram backstage. It's still difficult, though." Currently, he's Dancing in the Dark. That's the new title for the stage version of the Fred Astaire-Cyd Charisse movie of 1953, "The Band Wagon." It will try out at the Old Globe in March, under the direction of The Color Purple's Gary Griffin. The plot zigzags between 1952 and 1933 "so," said Beatty, "a designer has his work cut out for him."
William Ryall, another returnee, stands tall among the Whos — in fact, tallest — but doesn't have a lot of lines. He's the designated understudy for Old Max as well as — God forbid — The Grinch (although he has played that part on Broadway before: the Grinch he played in the original Seussical of 2000-200l was close to a cameo).
New, this year, to the Whos is Hunter Bell, who was not cast because of his flaming red hair. (He wears a wig, but the real hair must have made a pow impression at the audition.) His character, he claimed, "is Palm Springs Who. He's one of the many Whos in Whoville celebrating Christmas. It's a thrill to work on this show, an absolute joy." This is said with exactly the same wide-eyed childlike wonderment he summons on stage. "I didn't do it last year. This is my first year in Whoville, and it's my Broadway debut. And what a place to do it — at the St. James! There's such a history in that building. What Jack and Matt talked to us about through the whole process — what the whole idea of doing this show is: Kids today have play stations and they have TV and they have iPhones and TiVos and Divos — and Jack and Matt wanted to create a show for young kids to come see that would have an impact on them, the way you and I saw things as a kid that had impact on us. I think they're wildly successful at it. I'm proud to be a part of it."
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