Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
This is the tenth go-round for Children's Theater Company's rendition of the stage musical version of the classic children's book by Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor S. Geisel, published in 1957. The show uses two indelible songs from the televised animated version first broadcast in 1966–"You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," and "Welcome Christmas"–one a comically menacing ode to the detestable villain, the other a joyous salutation to the true meaning of Christmas, both written by Geisel and Albert Hague. The show is puffed up with an additional sleigh-full of songs, music by Mel Marvin and lyrics by Timothy Mason, who also devised the book, building upon Dr. Seuss' original text with additional dialogue which is rhymed to match Seuss' style. Most of these songs are just serviceable, but there are a few winners: "Who Likes Christmas," a spirited opening number that puts a spotlight on Linda Talcott Lee's happy-footed choreography; "I'm One of a Kind," providing a showstopping song and dance turn for the Grinch; and "Santa for a Day," sung by Cindy-Lou Who, the youngest and most intuitive Who, devised to melt hearts–if not the Grinch's, at least this theatergoer's.
The timeless tale begins in the Who community, a charming and generous lot who live in Whoville, joyfully preparing to greet Christmas, while the miscreant Grinch, looking down from his lair atop Mount Crumpet, is increasingly incensed by the whole business. His plot to once and for all to keep Christmas from coming, abetted by his put-upon dog Max, survives a challenge by Cindy-Lou but (does one need a spoiler alert?) is finally thwarted when he realizes that the element at the core of Christmas cannot be stolen, for it lies not wrapped under a tree or served on a platter, but within each believer's heart.
It is a simple enough story with an enduring message. The joyfulness comes from Seuss' jauntily imaginative creations and endearing rhymed verse, coupled with festive music, brightly conceived design elements and a cast of true believers, all wrapped up with a bow by director Peter C. Brosius, who steers away from being too cloying or too arch, maintaining a good-hearted sleigh ride that exhilarates as it gathers speed without ever threatening to go over an edge.
Children's Theatre's long-time acting company stalwart Reed Sigmund makes his fifth appearance as the green-skinned Grinch, and he is once again having the time of his life peering out from under the miscreant's unkempt fur. Sigmund's Grinch is nasty but never really frightening, so little ones are safe in his hands. The staged Grinch frames its narrative as a look back by loyal dog Max, now old Max, recalling the long-ago day when the Grinch found his heart. Dean Holt, another acting company veteran, portrays old Max, warmly introducing the show and narrating his youthful adventure with the Grinch. Audrey Mojica plays Max as a young pooch, drawing in our sympathy as his playful pup is restrained and made to do the Grinch's evil bidding. There is a delightful on-stage interplay between veteran Sigmund and the young Mojica, which makes the scenes where the pair are literally "stealing Christmas" from the Who houses particularly fun.
Elsa Dungan-Hawks shines as Cindy-Lou Who, the conscience of the piece, who not only grasps the true meaning of Christmas, but has the heart to forgive and embrace the Grinch, welcoming him into their community. The young actor pours her soul into "Santa for a Day." Autumn Ness as Mama Who, Dwight Xaveir Leslie as J.P. Who, Adam Qualls as Grandpa Who, and Suzie Juul as Grandma Who all bring spark to their characters, and the rest of the Who family and ensemble sing, dance and cavort with great delight, though I admit to finding the repeated jokes about Grandpa Who's bad hearing to wear thin.
David Kay Mickelsen's costume designs and Tom Butsch's scenic designs adroitly and affectionately draw upon Dr. Seuss' creations, with the depiction of the Grinch's faux Santa-sled en route to Whoville given an especially deft touch. Nancy Schertler's lighting and Sean Healey's sound design intensify and diffuse the drama as required. There are some projections by Craig Gottschalk, a more recent addition (I believe) to the staging that further enhances the production in wonderfully imaginative ways. The music, ably conducted by Children's Theatre Company go-to music director Victor Zupanc, sounds jolly, sinister, heartfelt or celebratory, as the scene calls for. Note, in this production, Zupanc shares music director credit with Denise Prosek.
How can one express thanks enough to Children's Theatre Company for creating this lovable, joyful show, that puts the flurry of the holiday season in perspective for audience members, young and old alike, and then for bringing it back at regular intervals to keep that message firmly planted? As Old Max shows us, redemption is possible for even the worst of us. Hold on to that thought when those disheartening headlines appear in our newsfeeds.
Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! runs through January 8, 2023, at the Children's Theater Company, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $49.00 - $89.00. $10.00 discounts available for children (17 and under), seniors (62 and above) and military personnel. Rush prices for any unsold seats, one hour before performance, $25.00 for adults, $15.00 for children, in person only. For tickets and information, please call 612-874-0400 or visit childrenstheatre.org.
Book and lyrics: Timothy Mason, based on the book "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" by Dr. Seuss; Music: Mel Marvin; Director: Peter Brosius; Choreographer: Linda Talcott Lee; Music Direction: Denise Prosek and Victor Zupanc; Scenic designer: Tom Butsch; Costume Design: David Kay Mickelsen; Lighting design: Nancy Schertler; Sound Design: Sean Healey; Projection Design: Craig Gottschalk; Conductor: Victor Zupanc; Stage Manager: Jamie K. Fuller; Assistant Stage Manager: Kenji Shoemaker; Assistant Director: Alli St. John; Assistant choreographer: Katie Taintor; Assistant Lighting Designer: Ellie Simonett; Stage Management Fellow: Jiccarra N. Hollman
Cast: Elsa Dungan-Hawks (Cindy-Lou Who), Dean Holt (Old Max), Suzie Juul (Grandma Who), Dwight Xaveir Leslie (J.P. Who), Audrey Mojica (Young Max), Hugo Mullaney (Danny Who), Autumn Ness (Mama Who), Rue Norman (Betty-Lou Who), Mari Peterson-Hilleque (Annie Who), Adam Qualls (Grandpa Who), Reed Sigmund (The Grinch), Matthew Woody (Brother Boo, Mini Grinch), Monica Xiong (Mini Max). Ensemble: Anja Arora, Liam Beck O'Sullivan, Evan Decker, Gerald Drake, Chloe Lou Erickson, Emily Hugget, Mena Koch, El Kost, Olivia Lampert, Sam Mandell, Logan Warner, Mabel Weismann, Glenn e. Williams II, Monica Xiong.