There's more family fare on tap this month. But I'm not sure that any age is suitable to enjoy Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical, which is currently on view at the Peabody Opera House. The best thing about this musical adaptation of the delightful 1957 rhyme from Dr. Seuss is its title. Who wouldn't want to see a show so delectably named, and, given the charm of the source material, who wouldn't hope for the best?
Granted, the challenge of adaptation is quite different here. Tom Sawyer is a 200-page novel that needs to be reduced to a two-hour playing time. The Grinch, which takes less than ten minutes to read, must be expanded to eighty. Tom Sawyer involves reduction; The Grinch is larded with excess. Ultimately the show dilutes and distorts what is most striking about the poem. Whereas Dr. Seuss' story is a model of compression —
Down in Who-ville
Liked Christmas a lot...
But the Grinch,
Who lived just north of Who-ville,
— the stage version repeats the Seuss lines over and over, out of the mouths of different characters, until the poem's brilliant economy is lost. Even the popular 1966 animated television version wears out its welcome, and it's only a half-hour long. In order to wring 80 minutes out of the poem, this adaptation adds new songs that might charitably be described as banal. Apart from one sweetly sentimental ditty titled "Now's the Time," at best the songs are tepid; by evening's end the score has become numbing.
Any occasional moment of pleasure can be credited to Stefan Karl, whose portrayal of the Grinch is never dull. Karl has been playing the Grinch for years now, and he has all the exaggerated gestures down cold. Outfitted in a slimy green costume that looks like a shag rug found in a rubbish heap, Karl works the audience, especially the children, with ease. Despite the fact that his commanding performance is mostly ham, Karl's most impressive attributes are his discipline and restraint. The role is so humorlessly written, it's easy to imagine an actor desperately pushing for laughs. But not once does Karl make us feel that he's going too far. He carries the show in his slippery octopus fingers so gingerly that he nearly makes it worth watching. You have to admire an actor alone onstage, hidden behind a mask of green, armed only with a tissue-thin script, yet still able to entertain an audience through the sheer force of his technique.
Karl gets good support from Bob Lauder, who portrays the Grinch's dog Old Max, who has been pressed into service as the show's narrator (another bad decision). Lauder looks like Richard Attenborough as Kris Kringle in the movie remake of Miracle on 34th Street, and he sings well too. But nobody should have to sing a dog of a song like "This Time of Year."
The evening wasn't a total loss. Watching a musical again in the Peabody Opera House rekindled fond memories from Kiel Opera House's storied history. I remember seeing Katharine Hepburn and George Rose in Coco. And in December 1965, Carol Channing was triumphant in Hello, Dolly! The old performance hall holds scores of still-vivid memories. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, though, is destined not to join them.