Cinema Dispatch: Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Musical

Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch Musical and all the images you see in this review are owned by NBC

Directed by Julia Knowles and Max Webster

Being the world’s number one expert on Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, it was practically my DUTY to watch… whatever this is, as soon as I heard about it!  It seems like the big new thing to try and get people back to watching TV has been these lavish stage productions like Hairspray, Grease, and (checks notes)… A Christmas Story?  They did one based on that movie?  Well in any case, it’s no surprise that they eventually got around to Dr. Seuss and the Green Man himself to maximize not just nostalgia but good ol’ CHRISTMAS nostalgia!  Is there anything to this new version of the story, or is it a shameless cash grab to give us another reason to make 2020 the worst year ever?  Let’s find out!!

Up on Mt Crumpit, all covered in snow, lived a green jerk bag that all of us should know.  He was played by Boris Karloff, then Jim Carrey next.  Then was Benedict Cumberbatch!  Who else will they get?  Some guy named Matthew Morrison who’s from a show called Glee.  A show a lot of people like but I have never seen.   It’s the story we’ve seen but with more musical cues, and lots of choreography from those dancing Whos!  The Grinch wants to stop the holiday, the whole Christmas Season!  Makes sense for 2020 where a President committed treason.  Will he succeed in his plot to rob all those folks?  More important than that, is this a show worthy of boast?  Do they capture the magic of the Seussian tale, or is this a cavalcade of ridiculous fails?  Can Mr. Morrison capture the magic of his role, or will this new version swiftly get old?  Is it better than the one made by Illumination, or is it somehow worse and will receive more condemnation?  Would it be tiresome to read this review all in rhyme?  Well luckily for you I’m not about to try, because I’m already up WAY past my bedtime.

“It’s just like the movie, only cheaper to make!”     “I bet you’d like this more if you got REALLY baked!”

Much like the Illumination film, it’s pretty much harmless.  I’d say it’s in some ways more INTERESTING, but that’s balanced out by how much more annoying it is than that movie.  Pretty much none of the songs worked for me, especially ones that relied on children singers, and there are some baffling decisions that perhaps only I will care about (and I’ll make sure to let you know in detail EXACTLY what they are), but what salvages this is the star himself; Matthew Morrison as The Grinch.  He’s not the best one as Jim Carrey still holds that title, but he brings a very unique spin on the character that still  feels natural and in line with what we’ve seen of the character before.  I’ll admit that A LOT of what I enjoyed about this movie was in spite of its intent, but in the right light there’s certainly something to enjoy even if you are a cynical grump like myself and I’m sure people more enthusiastic about the season will have a fun time with the pageantry of it all.  If nothing else, it’ll certainly be on my holiday rotation a lot more often than the Illumination film even if I end up skipping over most of the songs.

“IT’S THE PITCHY SQUEALS OF THE DAMNED!  MAKE IT STOP!!”

It’s clear that this show takes as much as it can from the Ron Howard movie (being the only other live action version of this story) but does so without understanding what made it work and so there’s zero bite to this show.  Perhaps wanting yet another brilliant take down of Consumerism and the reactive cynicism that goes along with it was too much to ask for an NBC stage show, but despite the feature length runtime there’s nothing new to this story that wasn’t just as capably covered in the twenty-two minute Chuck Jones short.   So what do they do with these extra minutes? Throw in a bunch of musical numbers and try to give the Whos something to do I guess.  When the music isn’t obnoxious (WAY too many kids singing here) it feels padded as they do Fah Who Foraze at least three times and most of the other songs are trying REALLY hard to force lines from the book into some sort of song structure which ends up sounding awkward and rather lazy.  The epitome of laziness (and bafflement) in this regard is when they decide to do Where Are You Christmas in a way that COMPLETELY misses the point of that song as written for the Ron Howard movie.  In the movie it was a child’s lament at growing up and having the magic of Christmas slip away in a haze of over the top consumption.  In here, it’s Cindy-Lou Who’s parents that sing it after they wake up to find The Grinch stole all their gifts; lamenting the very consumption that the song was lamenting about!  Alright, that’s the one rant I allowed myself to have about the Ron Howard movie, but it’s indicative of just how little meat there is on the bones of this show and how it actively works against what the supposed message of the story is!  The one moment that felt like it was APPROACHING some sort of narrative idea was the scene at the mall where the Whos sing It’s the Thought That Counts; a song about not worrying about price tags and fashionable goods that is constantly interrupted by announcements of sales that they all go wild for.  It’s a clever little segment that feels MUCH more relatable to the Christmas season than everyone singing around a tree, but is still just a blip in an otherwise endless string of banal jubilation. 

“And they call ME a weirdo!?”

In addition to the Whos, Max (Booboo Stewart) is upgraded from animal sidekick to full blown character here as he’s not only the narrator (Denis O’Hare) but has actual conversations with the Grinch.  This is an… interesting addition to the story and not without its charms, but the character ends up being as saccharin as the Whos with only slightly more depth.  Max has always been a not so silent advocate for the Grinch’s better nature, but now that he has the chance to speak he doesn’t have much to say and the visual of a grown man in a dog costume never REALLY sits right.  Still, this is probably where I start to find enjoyment the show in spite of itself as the absurdity of this man scampering around on the floor and doing doggy things while The Grinch yells at him is a source of non-stop amusement for me, and if nothing else he provides a proper sounding board for the Grinch to mouth off to in the scenes on Mt Crumpit which are by far the best scenes in the whole show.  Speaking of the Grinch, we might as well get to the star of the show which is Matthew Morrison who makes every scene his own and I found captivating all the way through.  He’s clearly working off of the template that Jim Carrey left in the Ron Howard film, but he makes it his own by making his character… well a STAGE character!  The Grinch in this show is dramatic, sassy, and in a constant state of despair that dulls the harsh edges of Carrey’s version and brings flair to Illuminations more genuinely distraught interpretation.  People seem to be fixating on his portrayal being overly sexual, but to me he’s just a MESS of a person and the world’s saddest Queen Bee; an HBIC who is only IC of his own dog. 

“The world is such a CRUEL place, and I am its punching bag!”     “Don’t say that about yourself Mr. Grinch!  There are good things all around us!”     “Shut up Max…”

This is the point where I’m perhaps getting outside of my lane as I try to put into words what it is about Matthew Morrison’s interpretation of the character that I found so captivating as to make up for most of the show’s faults.  He’s more foppish, vain, and filled with such woe that it makes the performance unique and engaging for me, but would it be fair to say that this is a queer interpretation of the character?  It’s certainly what I had in my head as I was watching the show, but I’m not exactly qualified to say that; nor am I particularly qualified to say if it’s a GOOD thing either way.  Is Matthew Morrison just plastering a series of gay tropes onto this character for us to laugh at as he swoons and spits bile at the world around him?  Is it fair to say that there’s always been at least some semblance of queerness to the Grinch that this show is picking up on?  Perhaps I’m reading WAY too much into this interpretation of the character or perhaps more worrisome is that he IS an offensive joke aimed at some people and I still found myself being completely endeared by his character.  I’d say it’s certainly an open question and I’d really like to hear what other people have to say about it, but whether he’s coded as queer or not I found the more dramatic and emotionally wrought nature of his character to be the most enjoyable thing about this show by a very wide margin; and don’t even get me started on what’s going on between him and Max!

“Mr. Green will see you now…”

There are moments of this that work.  Moments that shine, moments that have some genuine humor, and the ending manages to tie it all together; though it IS kind of hard to screw up such a gift wrapped ending as this one.  Now this isn’t a new show as it’s apparently been kicking around in various forms since 1994, but if you told me that the producers saw Matthew Morrison’s performance and stopped working on everything else because they had EVERYTHING they needed there, I wouldn’t be too surprised as he is the glue that’s holding everything else together.  Nothing about this feels as compelling or as complete a vision as his interpretation of the character, but for me it was enough to get all the way through it and there was enough INTERESTING ideas at play which were most likely not intentional that gave this a definite edge for originality that was sorely lacking in the Illumination film.  I’m already in the minority of people who think that Ron Howard’s film is an absolute masterpiece, so my perspective on another version of this story is no doubt skewed, but if my opinion is of any use to you, I’d say it’s worth seeing SOME of it.  With it being up on Hulu it’s very easy to just skip over anything that gets annoyed, but it’s worth watching Morrison’s performance for the sheer campiness of it and you may find some other things to enjoy about it too.  Probably not the SCREECHING CHILDREN, but I’m sure there’s something!

2.5 out of 5

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