It’s still no masterpiece, but “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical” has improved. New songs and some welcome recasting add a dash of substance to the kid-friendly tuner, now in its second holiday engagement on Broadway.
Unsurprisingly, the strongest bits from last year’s production return intact. As the Grinch — that green, misanthropic meanie who wreaks havoc on his holiday-loving neighbors, the Whos — Patrick Page still charms. His vamps and snarls have gotten sharper, and he finds new softness in the scenes where little Cindy-Lou Who (Athena Ripka, at the perf reviewed) loves him in spite of his skullduggery.
Rusty Ross has been with the tuner since its original run at San Diego’s Old Globe, yet his work as Young Max, the Grinch’s pooch sidekick, remains energetic. He doesn’t pander to the tykes in the crowd, but instead opts for honest feeling over hammy antics.
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However, Ross and Page’s singing voices were notably ragged on press night, which doesn’t bode well for the show’s demanding, 13-perfs-a-week schedule.
At least Ed Dixon can pick up the vocal slack. Playing Old Max — a role John Cullum yawned through last year — he sings and acts with avuncular warmth. And he seems to enjoy his costume, which pairs a smart cardigan with ears, paws and a surprisingly agile tail.
Dixon gets a boost from a revised frame story. Instead of being a simple narrator, Old Max is now a weary traveler, taking a final look at his memories before he literally picks up his bags and heads on his way. His gentle melancholy — also expressed in the sturdy new ballad “This Time of Year” — provides a dash of emotional depth.
As for the Whos, they’re still essentially generic, though songwriters Timothy Mason and Mel Marvin do give them more business in an upbeat new number called “It’s the Thought That Counts.” Choreographer Bob Richard crisply stages the ode to reducing holiday stress, sashaying a line of actors around brightly colored Who-presents and Who-stores.
Costumer Robert Morgan also deserves credit for crafting the oddly shaped Who-clothes — many of the outfits resemble Christmas ornaments — that actually allow the actors to dance.
Director Matt August maximizes the move from the cavernous stage of the Hilton Theater to the more intimate St. James stage. Whereas last year’s ensemble darted around to fill the space, this troupe has the freedom to interact. The resulting stage business makes the background feel more specific and alive.
Yet despite these touch-ups, Mason’s writing is still largely uninspired. His stabs at Seussian rhymes remain awkward, and his book retains some glaring errors. For instance, when the Grinch dresses as Santa to steal Christmas, he also disguises Young Max as a reindeer, tying a single antler on his head. Yet over and over, the script refers to Max’s “antlers.” Couldn’t someone correct the script and eliminate the plural noun usage?
And couldn’t someone help Old Max’s new storyline end coherently, instead of having him wander off 10 minutes before the final number? It’s as if Mason forgot to finish what he started.
Kids, of course, aren’t likely to notice dramaturgical foibles, and the show will probably please family crowds. But this season’s version should be considered a solid step forward, not a final draft.