Let us be frank: The Whos of Whoville? Those guys are weird. They’re relentlessly cheery, they have ridiculous hairstyles, and their diet apparently consists of cake and something called roast beast. It’s no wonder The Grinch has been plotting against them for 50-plus years now.
Festive, freaky Whoville is the setting of the colorful and fast-paced “Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical,” playing through Sunday at the Durham Performing Arts Center. In their candy-cane outfits of red and pink, the Whos provide the syrupy backdrop for the show’s real star – the eternally grinchy Mr. Grinch.
Played in appropriate giant ham mode by veteran Stefan Karl, The Grinch holds center stage throughout the show, playing directly to the audience and generally behaving like some deranged emcee in a green fuzzy suit. Karl’s growly vocal performance is a real delight, as he careens from bass to falsetto with snarls and growls.
The story of the Grinch’s Christmas Eve raid on Whoville is successfully expanded for the stage by employing a narrator – Max the Dog, now a wise old canine played by Bob Lauder – who spins the story as a Christmas memory of his younger self (Andreas Wyder). Cindy Lou Who is here, too, played on opening night by Jenna Iacono, cute as several dozen buttons.
This particular incarnation of the musical has been touring nationally for years and retains most of the signature elements of the book and the brilliant 1966 TV special by animator Chuck Jones. The sets, by Tony Award winner John Lee Beatty, replicate those loopy bulges and curves. The choreography evokes the daffy warmth of the happy, hand-holding Whos. (Alliteration just seems to happen when you’re writing about Dr. Seuss.)
Not all of the songs work, though. Too many numbers feel like padding, and the music often seems to deliberately cut across the grain of that familiar Seussian rhyming meter. More than once during big chorus moments, the music teetered on the edge of oompa-woompa cacophony. The show’s highlight, by far, is the familiar “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” with Lauder’s Old Max bottoming out on those glorious low notes.
“The Grinch” is a good holiday choice for families. It’s a generous, professional-grade musical that know its audience, and knows how to deliver. Among the bells and whistles are a couple of singalong moments, some “extemporaneous” crowd interaction from the Grinch, and a chance for the kids to see some snow – both in the seats and on your way out of the venue. Fake snow, of course, but still – you take what you can get in the South.