If musical theater is an acquired taste, then children’s musical theater is really limited to a particular palate. America got a crash course in that fact courtesy of NBC’s Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Musical! broadcast—the peacock network’s first musical venture since 2018’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert. While most of these recent live musicals have been geared towards a family audience (give or take Fox’s Rent: Live), The Grinch is the first to be aimed primarily at those 12 and under. This musical adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ Christmas classic began life at Minneapolis’ Children’s Theatre Company in 1994, where it was designed as a breezy, immersive 85-minute distraction for kids. And while the show went on to have a successful seasonal run on Broadway as well as several popular national tours and annual regional productions, whatever magic it conjures up in the shared communal space of a holiday theater very much doesn’t translate to the small screen.
By far the biggest problem with NBC’s Grinch is the musical source material itself. Mel Marvin’s painfully tuneless score makes Seussical look like a masterpiece in comparison, with the show’s only memorable songs pulled from the 1966 and 2000 film adaptations. And the unnecessarily convoluted script by Timothy Mason isn’t much better. This version of The Grinch is narrated by an older version of the Grinch’s dog Max (Denis O’Hare) reflecting back on his life as a younger pup (Booboo Stewart) living at the mercy of his hairy green owner (Matthew Morrison). The show has little in the way of logical character arcs, meaningful themes, or even basic plot momentum. And between the rhyming dialogue and a whole underdeveloped subplot for Cindy-Lou Who (Amelia Minto) and her multi-generational family, the scattered production could barely get into a storytelling groove before another commercial break would come along to break up the flow.
The Grinch didn’t do itself any favors with its casting either. Though O’Hare and Stewart are usually reliable charm factories, they both came across a little flat here—unsure whether to pitch their performances for the stage or the screen. Morrison, meanwhile, made the baffling choice to essentially make no choice at all when it came to putting his stamp on Seuss’ big green meany. The erstwhile Glee star sort of tried to split the difference between Jim Carrey’s manic take from the 2000 live action film and Benedict Cumberbatch’s weirdly low-key approach from 2018’s animated adaptation—eventually landing on something vaguely Elvis-y and a tad vaudevillian. Mostly, however, it just felt like someone had left Mr. Schue trapped in the choir room for too long. Though Morrison’s singing voice was strong, the Grinch’s whispered, fourth-wall-breaking close-ups were full-on nightmare fuel.
There were some high points throughout the evening, including fun costuming, a committed Who ensemble, and a truly fantastic set design that embraced the illustrated aesthetic of the original book. This production was filmed onstage at the Troubadour Theatre in London, and it was refreshing to see one of these live musicals openly embrace the conventions of theatricality rather than try to replicate a TV movie experience. Julia Knowles’ camera direction nicely complimented Max Webster’s staging, which isn’t always a given with these musical broadcasts. It probably helped that this one was taped in advance over the course of two days rather than filmed live.
Yet despite all that, The Grinch never amounted to more than the sum of its whimsical parts. While I’m usually one to look on the bright side with these TV musicals (I even liked Peter Pan Live!), The Grinch just made me miss the ephemeral magic that can only come from actually being in a theater alongside live performers and fellow audience members. It’s not hard to imagine the show’s fart jokes and fourth wall breaks going down a lot easier when they’re met with gales of laughter from a giddy young audience happy to be catered to by enthusiastic performers.
Of course, the pandemic has made that experience impossible this year, and hopefully young audiences at least found some of that magic while watching this broadcast from the comfort of their own homes (particularly while watching the show’s talented child ensemble absolutely dance their butts off). But with so many other versions of The Grinch out there, it’s hard to imagine this one making the top of anyone’s Christmas list. Like that swiftly forgotten Christmas Story Live! musical from a few years ago, this is a bit of holiday ephemera that seems destined for the “oh yeah, that happened” pile.
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