Colorful cast shines in ‘Grinch’ musical at Chicago Theater

Shuler Hensley as The Grinch and the 2014 Equity Touring Company of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas The Musical.” (Photo courtesy of BLUEMOON STUDIOS)

The iconic adaption “Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical” is currently playing at the Chicago Theater. The production runs through Saturday, Nov. 29.

It has been said by many closest to Dr. Seuss that his most classic characters, found in many of his bestsellers, were merely cartoon versions of his multiple personalities—his step-daughter stating, “I always thought the Cat…was Ted on his good days, and the Grinch was (him) on his bad days.”

The Grinch, Seuss’ alleged alter ego, in the book that debuted in 1957 wasn’t his notorious green color; but, instead was the black and white with pink (his eye color) and red (his Santa outfit) highlights, deeming him more akin to the Whos then he was willing to admit. However, the 1966 animated television special, directed by Chuck Jones, brought about the “classic” color change, and with this came the about-face in portrayal from mischievous to one who is easily provoked and ill tempered, the infamous angry black man syndrome.

This year marks the second year the musical visited Chicago, a first with actor Shuler Hensley as the Grinch. The musical adaptation of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” is narrated by Old Max (Ken Land), the Grinch’s dog, as a story told in retrospect. In the 1966 special, Max only has two lines –  “Yipe!” and “Rah!” –  but in the musical he talks so much, as both Young Max (Aleksa Kurbalija) and Old, that you begin to question what he has to do with the Grinch’s story, other than being his silent companion and homemade reindeer.

Living atop Mount Crumpit, the Grinch wallows in his sorrows amid the holiday season, he having hated Christmas for 53 years—his whole life. Cindy Lou Who (Lilyana Cornell) inquires to Papa Who (Danny Gurwin) about the Grinch’s whereabouts, which intrigues the other children of Whoville and worries the adults. Fed up with the Whos’ joyous jingles and gilded gimcracks dressing the town entirely, the Grinch devises a plan to “keep Christmas from coming.” While out Christmas shopping with the children, Papa Who, Mama Who (Jamey Hood), and Grandpa Who (Stuart Zagnit) encounter a foreigner who identifies himself as a southerner and invite him to their annual Christmas celebration; it was the Grinch in disguise.

Early in the production the angry black man is apparent in the Grinch, as he comes out, jokingly, asking the audience what they’re looking at or if an old woman wanted a piece of him and proceeding to put his dukes up and challenging a few others before moving on. As opposed to the book and film which portray him with a tiny potbelly, he is made out to be a fat slob: overweight, he becomes winded by running a short ways.

Though it is common knowledge that this production is a family musical, that doesn’t dismiss the fact that parents were careless with the minding of their children as they became too deeply immersed.

The effects and cast-audience interaction were the single sliver of saving grace. The black curtain, which fell after each musical number, doubled as a sort of green screen, if you will, displaying snow blowing as the Grinch sat perched atop a rocking sleigh tied to Max. The second time the ensemble sang, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”, they turned on the lights and encouraged the audience to sing along as they flashed the lyrics attached to the sleigh.

For this to be an adaptation of such a classic and iconic Christmas story, I expected far more of it. But as I found myself laughing heartily a few times, I would not go as far as to say “I hated it” as the Grinch might. If you enjoy Dr. Seuss and are looking for something family-friendly thisChristmas season (no matter the children’s level of obedience) this might be right up your chimney.