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Article updated: 12/7/2012 4:41 PM

Bright, buoyant 'Grinch' a treat for audiences

By Barbara Vitello

Broadway in Chicago's "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical" has everything a child could want.

Inspired by the 1957 book by Theodor Seuss Geisel -- and faithful to his distinctive illustrations and the 1966 animated film that became a holiday TV staple -- the show is bright, boisterous and ebullient. And with a running time of 90 minutes, it concludes just about the time pint-size audience members start to get restless.

But the "Grinch's" greatest asset may well be Iceland's Stefan Karl, the agile actor who stars as the titular grouch determined to keep Christmas from the good-natured Whos.

Karl's outsize performance of this over-the-top character is impressive not just for its physicality but for its expressiveness.

Watching Karl -- dressed from head to heel in scraggly green fur -- bound across the stage growling, blowing raspberries and making all manner of oddball sounds, one can't help marveling at the stamina it takes to pull off this demanding role.

One also marvels at how deftly Karl (bad guy Robbie Rotten on the international children's TV series "Lazy Town") balances cartoon villainy and sentiment. Add the vivid expressions conveyed by the rubber-faced actor, whose face is painted a menacing green and black, plus the deliciously glitzy star turn in "One of A Kind," and you've got the complete Grinch package.

The show -- whose earliest incarnation premiered in the mid-1990s at the Minneapolis Children's Theatre Company -- boasts a book and lyrics by Timothy Mason, whose playful, Seuss-inspired work reportedly earned praise from Geisel himself. Mel Marvin composed the pleasant perky score, which includes tunes Albert Hague and Dr. Seuss wrote for the animated film: the iconic Who anthem "Welcome Christmas" and "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," wonderfully sung by Bob Lauder as Old Max, the Grinch's loyal dog and narrator of the story he recalls from his youth.

As for the tale, it unfolds in flashback on John Lee Beatty's whimsically two-dimensional set done in black, white and red (or various shades thereof). In fact, the sets so cannily imitate Geisel's illustrations that watching the show makes you feel as though you've stepped into the book.

Robert Morgan outfits the characters in quirky, boldly graphic costumes that complement designer Thomas Augustine's fanciful, curlicue wigs. Special effects designer Gregory Meeh supplies a nice visual of the Grinch's expanding heart before sending the audience on its way with a faint dusting of snow.

Director Matt August's brisk, entertaining production features solid performances from the cast, including the disarming Seth Bazacas, pitch-perfect as Young Max, who recognizes early on his owner's foul mood stems from his undersized heart.

Also earning kudos is the cute-as-a-button Georgia Kay Wise, a slight young actress with enormous presence and a voice to match. Wise plays Cindy-Lou Who (alternating with Jenna Iacono), the tiny tyke who sets the Grinch on the road to redemption, inclusion and the revelation that "maybe Christmas doesn't come from the store. Maybe Christmas means something more."

This "Grinch" isn't perfect. The Whos' Weeble-like wobbling gets a bit tiresome and the show could do with less fog. Finally, the dizzying "What Cha Ma Who" featuring a chorus of kazoo-playing, hyperkinetic Who children borders on sensory overload. It left me breathless, and sympathizing with the Grinch whose objection to Christmas seems rooted primarily in the cacophony that accompanies it.

The older I get, the more I agree. And yet this show wasn't written for me.

It's made for parents and their well-loved tots, who will find in the "Grinch" a show they'll love lots.

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