BY CATEY SULLIVAN | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
As villains go, he’s a corker: His heart is full of dirty socks. He has termites in his smile. Given a choice between hanging with him and a seasick crocodile? Easy. The crocodile wins. We are describing (in the immortal lyrics of Theodore Geisel aka Dr. Seuss) the Grinch, that bile-colored stealer of Christmas.
Immortalized in both Seuss’ 1957 picture book and the beloved 1966 animated TV special, the Grinch slithers into town Nov. 20 when “Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical” opens at the Chicago Theatre.
“He’s almost kind of like Hannibal Lecter,” says Tony-winner Shuler Hensley who plays the title role in the indelible holiday parable. “He’s awful, but he can also be quite charming. And fascinating. You see his big, green, hairy hand coming into view near the start of the show, and it’s delightful. And a little terrifying.”
‘DR. SEUSS’ HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS! THE MUSICAL’ When: Nov. 20-29 Where: Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State Tickets: $35-$125 Info: thechicagotheatre.com/thegrinch Run time: 90 minutes
A classically trained bass-baritone with a formidable physicality, the 6-foot-4 Hensley is well-suited to embody the chartreuse malcontent who sneaks into Whoville on Christmas Eve and absconds with everything from the presents to the roast beast. Casting aside, moving the snarliest holiday hater since Ebenezer Scrooge from page to stage is a tricky business. For director Matt August, the key to an authentic Grinch is staying word-for-word and picture-for-picture true to a story enshrined in 2012 by the School Library Journal as one of the Top 100 Picture Books of all time.
“If you flip through the pages of the book,” August says, “you’ll see every single illustration on stage during the musical — including that famous scene where the Grinch is racing up and down Mount Crumpit on his sleigh.”
You’ll also hear the two songs for which Seuss wrote the lyrics, the growling ode to misanthropy, “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch” and the joyous Whoville holiday anthem “Welcome Christmas.”
For lyricist/librettist Timothy Mason (who collaborated with Mel Marvin on the project), stretching Seuss’ picture book into a 90-minute musical meant figuring out how to add material without compromising Seuss’ singular voice or padding the show with superfluous filler. Like the book, the show is in verse. And the Grinch – even when his heart is “two sizes too small” — isn’t merely a two-dimensional cardboard cutout.
“Here’s the thing about the Grinch,” says Mason. “At his first appearance, you’re like ‘oh he’s a monster.’ But there’s something about him that is also sort of sad. You can imagine him being the sort of bitter, unhappy old guy who sits all by himself watching old movies all day.”
Well, not entirely all by himself. There is Max, the beleaguered puppy the Grinch mushes up and down the mountain, hauling a perilously (and hilariously) overladen sleigh. Played by two (human) actors, Max is the show’s narrator, an elderly pooch recalling his puppyhood adventure and the Grinch’s redemption.
“I think,” says Mason, “that Max is a point of entry for a lot of kids. They identify at first with the dog.”
Inevitably, adds August, audiences wind up identifying with the Grinch as well — even when he’s at his squinty-eyed vilest.
“Who doesn’t understand the impulse to withdraw sometimes?” August says. “I think that’s a primal, universal feeling we all have sometimes, the impulse to get away from absolutely everyone.”
The Grinch, of course, takes that impulse to extreme, hiding out in his icy cave and gleefully plotting the demise of Christmas. Those plans are expanded a bit from the book: Mason added a scene in which the Grinch dons a disguise and heads down to Whoville to buy a Santa suit and other necessaries, encountering the innocent, angelic and very tiny Cindy Lou Who as he makes his diabolical preparations. The two have a song together, “Santa for a Day.”
“Like all good Christmas songs, it’s not entirely happy,” says Mason. “Think of ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas.’ It’s this happy, warm lyric and then he hits you with, ‘if only in my dreams.’ With ‘The Grinch,’ we found that everything in the story radiated out from that ‘Santa for a Day.’ That story goes back to the real genius of Dr. Seuss.
“He’s teaching you something in a way that you’re not even aware you’re being taught. You come away from ‘The Grinch’ thinking about the real meaning of Christmas, without being hit over the head with it.”
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.