‘DR. SEUSS’ HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS!’ RECOMMENDED When: Through Nov. 29 Where: Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State Tickets: $35-$125 Info: (800) 745-3000; www.thechicago theatre.com/grinch Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission
A mean and lonely guy with “a heart two sizes too small” to love Christmas tries to ruin the holiday for everyone else. But an encounter with a sweet, warm-hearted little girl transforms him, and through her irrepressible power of love and acceptance he suddenly finds himself embracing the holiday with a new-found, heart-expanding enthusiasm.
Sounds a bit like old Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens’ “‘A Christmas Carol” has paired up with that ever-optimistic little orphan, “Annie.” But of course the story in question is “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!,” the much-beloved, often adapted tale devised by that mischievous man by the name of Dr. Seuss.
The children’s book, transformed into a musical by Timothy Mason (book and lyrics) and Mel Marvin (music), debuted at Minneapolis’s Children’s Theatre Company in 1994, and then went on to have its first Broadway edition in 2006. It has visited this city before, and is now back at the Chicago Theatre for a run through Thanksgiving weekend.
Directed by Matt August (based on Jack O’Brien’s original), with annoying bobble-head-style choreography by John DeLuca devised for the Christmas-loving Who population so loathed by the Grinch, the show is big-budget children’s theater of the old-fashioned variety. But it has enough winning performers and theatrical tricks in its sack to keep children entertained for 90 minutes.
This season’s Grinch is Shuler Hensley, who was so winning as the monster in Mel Brooks’ musical “Young Frankenstein.” In his swamp grass suit he is just green and gunky enough to be out of place (why is green always the outcast color?), and he makes the most of his big vaudeville turn, “One of a Kind,” in which he proclaims his singularity, though I kept wishing he’d give us a bit of “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” too.
The whole story unspools as a flashback narrated by an elderly dog, Max (Ken Land), who thinks back to what life was like when he was the Grinch’s high-spirited and much-abused young pup (Aleksa Kurbalija). And of course the crucial focus of his memory is that one particular Christmas Eve when the Grinch conspired to steal the Who family’s gifts, its food, and its Christmas tree, yet failed to diminish its celebratory spirit. (I wish he had just stolen their hideous pink outfits, instead.)
It is little Cindy-Lou Who (the very appealing, clarion-voiced Presley Ryan) who mistakes the Grinch for Santa, recognizes his loneliness and defrosts his heart. And before the story is all over everyone understands that the shopping-and-feasting aspects of Christmas are just decorative elements, while love and family are of the essence.
The kids in the audience at Thursday night’s opening seemed attentive and engaged. But unlike many holiday classics, without a kid in tow there is really no reason at all to see this show.