In the pantheon of the memorable characters that Cullum has played on Broadway over the past 45 years -- Don Quixote, Edward Rutledge, Charlie Anderson, Oscar Jaffe, and Caldwell P. Cladwell to name a few -- the role of Old Max, the now-elderly dog looking back at the adventures of his younger self (the completely adorable Rusty Ross) and that nasty, wasty skunk of a master, the Grinch (Patrick Page), certainly pales in comparison. Still, Cullum brings to the part all of his considerable skill, a feat sure to be fully appreciated by the many adults in the audience.
And believe me, there will be plenty of adults there -- some without kids -- reveling in the nostalgia of the beloved book and the classic 30-minute CBS cartoon version that remains a wintertime tradition. This musical is a tradition in itself on the West Coast; it has delighted audiences -- in a somewhat less elaborate form -- at San Diego's Old Globe for the past eight years. At 70 minutes, it's the perfect length to keep the young ones entertained without trying the patience of the older set.
The story is extremely simple. The Grinch hates Christmas and the local villagers, the Whos, who celebrate it wholeheartedly. So he tries to destroy their happiness by coming to town and stealing their trees, their presents, and their food. But he eventually changes his mind about the holiday after being touched by the unselfish goodness of young Cindy Lou Who (played by the big-voiced moppet, Nicole Bocchi, at my performance; the show has two casts of youngsters and ensemble members).
For all of the tale's basic simplicity, this new version, directed by Matt August and supervised by its original creator/director, the great Jack O'Brien, has a few big-scale tricks up its sleeve for visual excitement -- along with the excellent cartoon-inspired sets of John Lee Beatty, Robert Morgan's delightfully inventive costumes, and the puppet wizardry of Michael Curry, all of which make it worthy of Broadway ticket prices.
What the show could use to make it a total success is a much better score. The two famed songs from the cartoon (with music by Albert Hague) have been augmented by seven pleasant if mostly unmemorable numbers by Mel Marvin and Timothy Mason. Most get a reprise, and they still don't linger in the memory past the curtain call. More disappointing is that the score -- or really much else here -- doesn't take advantage of the first-rate adult performers, including the fabulous Kaitlin Hopkins, Michael McCormick, Price Waldman, and Jan Neuburger, who play the adult Whos.
Then again, this is supposed to be the Grinch's show. In what I suspect is a concerted effort not to frighten the youngest audience members, Page is more sardonic than scary; he was far more terrifying as Scar in The Lion King. Nevertheless, this consistently fine actor has a commanding, fully engaging presence, and he plays his one big solo, "One of a Kind," with the kind of pizazz that would make Liza Minnelli jealous.
While there are many messages in How The Grinch Stole Christmas, the one I remember is that deep down, even the meanest of us want to be really, really liked. Even theater critics.