Considering that the Hilton Theater lobby is bursting with tie-in merchandise, it’s ironic that “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical” retains the book’s moral that Christmas isn’t about presents at all. However, this is hardly the first show to profit from the idea that materialism is wrong, and as mixed messages go, it’s entertaining. Buoyed by gorgeous design and a saucy star turn from Patrick Page, “The Grinch” likely will satisfy family crowds in search of holiday spectacle.
Those seeking a memorable book and songs will be disappointed, however. The strongest material comes from Seuss, who uses his famously clever rhyming couplets to explain how a furry meanie tries to ruin Christmas for a group of elfin villagers called the Whos.
Just as it does in the 1966 cartoon, the good doctor’s language tickles the ear. Who else could say things like, “He cleaned out their icebox as quick as a flash/Why, that Grinch even took their last can of Who-hash?”
The charm of Seuss’ lines only amplifies the awkwardness of Timothy Mason’s book and lyrics. Tacking on a frame story — the entire show is narrated by Old Max (John Cullum), the grown-up version of the Grinch’s pooch sidekick — and some strained comic business, Mason writes as if he’s distracted. He shows little regard for meter, and he rhymes words like “beneath” with “leash” or “wrap it” with “jacket.”
New plot points also are shaky. Mason introduces a bevy of Whos, but most are less than one-note. All we know about Cindy Lou Who is that she’s lispy and angelic, while Grandpa is deaf and little brother Boo is, um, a boy.
The story obviously needed more characters to fill out 65 minutes, but Mason might have done better to fully develop a few Whos than to write so many flat archetypes.
Cullum and Rusty Ross, as Young Max, also are handed limp roles. Cullum seems disinterested, but Ross invests his single objective — to be good-naturedly miffed at the Grinch’s cruelty — with physical energy. Bounding and tumbling, he’s the kind of puppy you want to scratch behind the ears.
The script gives more meat to the Grinch, whose villainy is now self-righteous. In “One of a Kind” — the only new song to approach the cartoon’s anthems “Welcome, Christmas” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” both included here — he declares how proud he is to be the lone member of his species. Page makes it a showstopper: Selling every high-kick and standing before a shimmering green curtain, he declares his superiority like a children’s book Velma Kelly.
But Page is too clever to make the Grinch a campy bitch. More accurately, he’s a cad, charming even when he’s scaring kids in the audience. Sighing with delight, he says, “I love it when the little ones cry.”
Director Matt August (following the template of Jack O’Brien’s original production from San Diego’s Old Globe) is hell-bent on keeping the little ones occupied. He makes most scenes loud and busy, as though afraid tots will lose interest. But while it may be shrill, August’s mania seems to work. At the perf reviewed, tykes stayed largely attentive.
Both for John Lee Beatty’s sets and Robert Morgan’s costumes drew aud “oohs.” Designers use the eye-popping palette of cartoons, and their clothes and props are jokily oversized.
Beatty particularly copies Seuss’ inked illustrations, making all the Who houses look like cutouts from a book. In a funny recurring bit, he shows the perspective from the top of Mt. Crumpit, where the Grinch glares down on Whoville, by sliding on miniature cottages filled with Michael Curry’s wee Who puppets.
Those flourishes will give parents enough to ogle, even if their minds wander from the story. In the end, everyone may be happy enough to join the show-closing sing-along before heading to the lobby to buy a collectible doll.