Jim Carrey in Ron Howard's film versionof How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Jim Carrey in Ron Howard's film version
of How the Grinch Stole Christmas
There's no question as to Who's on top financially. That would be Jim Carrey and Ron Howard, thanks to their multimillion-dollar, overblown film version of a Dr. Seuss classic. But there's a smaller scale, sweeter Whoopla going on here in San Diego: a stage version of the same story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Audrey Geisel, the widow of the late, great Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel), remains a San Diego resident, and she was enormously supportive in getting the Grinch up on the stage of the Old Globe Theatre. But what on earth was she thinking in her involvement with that movie monstrosity? The book, you may recall, was a valentine to Christmas (if that isn't mixing holiday metaphors). Dr. Seuss was prescient when he wrote it in nearly a half-century ago as a warning against Christmastime materialism. Well, he's surely rolling over in his grave over what's been done to his story.

There's no question that the tale of the Grinch is as relevant as ever, and not just at Christmas. Our values are eternally questioned (and questionable) these days. But there's something else in the book, too: the notion that someone can take away the thing you think you love, and thereby cause you to realize that what you really love is something that cannot be stolen. How did that idea serve as the basis for such a dark, ungracious, and uninspiring movie? The on-screen Whos, instead of being peaceable, Christmas-loving folk, are nasty and ugly (and their mothers dress them funny). There's absolutely none of the whimsy or fantasy of the Seuss original here. This Grinch is not just "a mean one"--he's a coarse, gross and hyperactive one, badly in need of a double-dose of Ritalin.

The Old Globe's Grinch, Guy Paul, plays to the kids; and they love to hate him, squealing with mock fear. In contrast, Jim Carrey plays to our baser instincts, his signature sneer revealing the Grinch's stained and misaligned teeth (we could do without the bugs crawling over them). This Grinch's lair looks like a dank, high/low-tech Batman cave on a bad acid trip. And who cares if these Whos get their Christmas or not? They're a thoroughly unlikable and unattractive community. Except, of course, for young Cindy Lou Who, with her rabbit teeth (she hasn't yet grown her ugly nose) and her fascination with the Grinch. This Cindy Lou isn't merely awakened by the Grinch during his Christmas theft, as in the original; she goes after him, scaling his forbidding mountain and interviewing all the older Whos to find out his back-story. Ugh!

Promotional art for the Old Globe's Grinch
Promotional art for the Old Globe's Grinch
In order to fill an evening or afternoon, both the film and the Old Globe adaptation had to develop some sort of framing device for the Grinch's story. Ron Howard decided to show us how, in childhood, the Grinch was rejected by the Whos for his hairy face. (Didn't anyone notice those clawed hands?). Oh, so that's why "his heart was two sizes too small." (A myocardial infarction would have been a more inspired explanation.) In the stage version--with book and lyrics by Timothy Mason, music by Mel Marvin, and sprightly direction by Jack O'Brien--the tale is narrated by Old Max as the aging, bespectacled dog looks back on his frisky youth and the time when he lived on the hill with the Green Meanie. The show's songs aren't as good as the ones from the Chuck Jones cartoon, but you can't help succumb to the sentimentalism of the story.

What's best about the Globe's Grinch is the look of the production. Scenic designer John Lee Beatty and costume designer Robert Morgan have made a miracle, causing the entire Dr. Seuss book to come springing to life in three dimensions and three colors: black, white and red (with a little pink thrown in, just as Seuss drew it). The Whos have that big-bottomed, pear-shaped, cartoonish look, and their tri-colored clothes are incredibly inventive. It all screams good, silly fun. To top it off, the Grinch's hair-raising, gift-stealing sleigh ride is recreated in miniature; and, at one point, there's a snowfall throughout most of the theater. Sure, it gets kind of treacly. Yet it's a joy to watch the kids gaping at the wonders of the show and experiencing the thrill of seeing their talented neighborhood peers up there, singing their hearts out and having a ball. Guaranteed, more than a few new theatergoers are born at every performance.

And what would they take away from the movie? A headache? Zillions of people all over America are flocking to see the Howard-Carrey film, no matter how badly it was panned by critics, while only some San Diegans (and a few tourists) will experience the Old Globe's smaller-scale Grinch. But there's no question as to which audience will get a better taste of Who-manity.