Its reputation as a gruff, humbuggy sort of town notwithstanding, New York is rare in that Ebenezer Scrooge is nowhere to be found this season. "A Christmas Carol" will enjoy more than three dozen professional stagings this year nationwide, but ever since Madison Square Garden's glitzy version closed up shop in 2003, New York theatergoers have lacked a sufficient naysayer to cut through the holiday merriment. And so the Grinch has stepped into Scrooge's miserly shoes for an inoffensive, moderately diverting adaptation of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!"
Immortalized first in Dr. Seuss's 1957 book and then in a fondly remembered 1966 Chuck Jones TV cartoon, the Grinch upped the ante on Scrooge's hostility: Rather than just grumble about wassailing and such, the cave-dwelling Grinch actually loots the entire town of Whoville while dressed as Santa Claus. And while his inevitable change of heart doesn't rival old Ebenezer's — his only good deed is returning the stuff he stole in the first place — the Grinch's tale of cynicism undone by selfless holiday joy remains a potent one.
Inspired bits of warmth or humor may be few and far between in Jack O'Brien's workmanlike staging. (The production, which has run for several years in San Diego, has been shepherded to New York by Matt August, with Mr. O'Brien getting a "created and supervised by" credit.) Still, champions of Yuletide misanthropy — to say nothing of parents who can't bear another year of Rockettes — could do worse.
For one thing, Timothy Mason's adaptation — the show clocks in at well under 90 minutes — resists the temptation to create spurious motivations for the Grinch's behavior. Unlike the execrable film version, which dredged up a tired tale of unrequited love suffered by an 8-year-old Grinchlet, Mr. Mason offers little beyond Dr. Seuss's purposely vague:
It could be his head wasn't screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.
Dr. Seuss understood that kids are willing to toss the "why" out the window as long as the "how" is sufficiently interesting. The Grinch steals Christmas for the same reason Willy Wonka (another character fleshed out unnecessarily for the movies) nonchalantly sacrifices tykes throughout his chocolate factory: because the story would be boring if he didn't.
Mr. Mason's augmented book embellishes the story harmlessly enough. But his lyrics, along with several new songs by composer Mel Marvin, sit uncomfortably in the shadow of the two instantly recognizable Albert Hague-Dr. Seuss songs from 1966, which are included here. ("You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" may earn the coveted "audience sing-along" spot, but be prepared for those nonsense syllables that open "Welcome Christmas" to once again burrow deep into your brain.) Adults may wish to shrink their eardrums a few sizes during "WhatchamaWho," an all-too-faithful depiction of children's penchant for high-decibel chaos, and robbing the Whos blind sounds better and better with each repetition of the chorus, "Who likes Christmas? Whos like Christmas!"
Patrick Page, whose credits include a long stint in "The Lion King" as the villainous Scar, brings a good bit of that character's glowering, vaguely effete treachery to the Grinch. An impressive physical comedian who has learned how to make malevolence believable but not too scary, Mr. Page chews the scenery at the appropriate times (as in the sprightly solo, "One of a Kind," the best of Messrs. Marvin and Mason's new material) but not at the expense of the show. A bright-voiced youngster named Caroline London, who shares the role of heart-melting little Cindy Lou Who with Nicole Bocchi, straddles the boundary between endearing and cloying with similar finesse.
The role of Max, the Grinch's put-upon mutt and makeshift reindeer, has been split between two actors, with Broadway veteran John Cullum narrating as the older version with his usual flinty precision. As the younger Max, Rusty Ross is vigorous if unmemorable, a description that applies to the other performers who inhabit Whoville.
John Lee Beatty's sets offer a faithful facsimile of the original Dr. Seuss imagery, although neither he nor the directors adequately convey the spatial relationship between the Grinch's mountain lair and the town 10,000 feet below. More successful is costume designer Robert Morgan. In addition to designing the Grinch's costume, a shaggy riot of every shade of green imaginable, Mr. Morgan has also replicated the oddly bulbous physiognomies of Whoville; his inventive red-and-white holidaywear converts the Whos into a vibrant array of pear-shaped candy canes.
And judging from the responses around me, the kids in the audience ate up every Grinchy grimace and Whoville holler. Think of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" as an adequate placeholder until they're ready for "Bad Santa." Now when will they turn that into a Broadway musical?
Until January 7 (213 W. 42nd St., between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, 212-307-4100).