By Charlene Baldridge
The official Nov. 15 tree-lighting ceremony had not taken place yet, but the gigantic Whoville Christmas tree outside The Old Globe on Nov. 12 was magnificently lit, likely to please all the children on their way inside to see the opening of the Globe’s 18th annual production of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
Here, where the Timothy Mason/Mel Marvin musical was originally conceived and directed by Artistic Director Emeritus Jack O’Brien, it is OK to say the word “Christmas,” because, as they declare in the show’s second song, “Whos like Christmas!”
When the show starts, theatergoers young and old are introduced to Whoville (that’s where the Whos live) by Old Max (Steve Gunderson, who’s appeared in the show more than a dozen times). Packing a suitcase, Old Max is delighted when his young self (Blake Segal) appears. He wants to see the “old place” ere he leaves for good. The “old place” includes Whoville below and the cave high on Mt. Crumpit, where Max lived with the recluse green Grinch and was forced to participate in his mean, green master’s scheme to prevent Christmas from happening this year and any other.
The show’s most delightful musical numbers (“This Time of Year,” “I Hate Christmas,” “One of a Kind,” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”) are performed by Young Max, Old Max and/or the Grinch. It’s likely you’ll go home singing them, along with Cindy Lou Who’s “Santa for a Day” and the Whos’ original carol, “Fah Who Doraze.”
Grinch is played for the first time by Broadway and film star (“The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3”) J. Bernard Calloway, who portrayed club owner Delray Jones in the Broadway production of “Memphis.” The first African-American Grinch, Calloway sings the part exceptionally well, and due to his NFL size is a perfect foil for diminutive Cindy-Lou (portrayed opening night by 8-year-old Mikee Castillo), who ultimately charms and transforms the Grinch, bringing about the show’s happy ending. Veteran Taylor Coleman portrays Cindy-Lou in alternate performances.
When O’Brien conceived the production, he came up with the idea of having the youngest residents of Whoville played by alternating teams of youngsters. This allows them to perform without being over-taxed and gives more kids an opportunity to perform and grow. Some return to the production for years, graduating from little Whos to Who teens. Noted San Diego musical theater actor/director James Vásquez stages the work. John Deluca created the original choreography, later enhanced by Bob Richard.
Another charming creation was the distinctive Who costumes conceived by Associate Artist Robert Morgan. These Whos are not ordinary Whomans, but have insect or bug-like carapaces with swollen midsections. Their hairdos are ever fascinating as are the shoes. John Lee Beatty is the scenic designer, Pat Collins, the lighting designer, and Paul Peterson, the sound designer. Music Director Elan McMahan conducts the nine-piece union “Who-chestra,” which plays Anita Ruth’s orchestrations. The production is performed without interval and lasts about one hour, 20 minutes.
It is interesting to note that in addition to Gunderson the show repeatedly attracts numerous Southern California Equity artists as grownup Who family members, for instance, Robert J. Townsend (Papa Who), Bets Malone (Mama Who), Geno Carr (Grandpa Who), Nancy Snow Carr (Grandma Who), plus Jacob Caltrider, David Kirk Grant, Kyrsten Hafso-Koppman, Clay Stefanki, Jill Townsend and Kelsey Venter as Whoville’s other grownup Whos.
As for the youth, they are formidably talented and well-trained. Whether or not you are attached to little ones, you deserve to see the Old Globe’s heart-warming annual holiday treat. There’s just something about it. Maybe that something is Christmas.
—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. You can follow her blog at charlenebaldridge.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.