Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Reverend’s Reviews: The Grinch vs. Mary Poppins in LA

In one corner, at the Pantages Theatre, is a nasty-wasty, green-furred creature intent on stealing holiday joy. In the other corner, better known as the Ahmanson Theatre, is a practically perfect if wind-dependent British nanny with magical powers. Their battle for theatre-goers’ dollars erupted this past weekend as Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The Musical and Mary Poppins opened, both making their Los Angeles debuts.

Saturday’s premiere of The Grinch was a suitably festive affair, the Pantages’ exterior beautifully festooned with Christmas trees and white lights. The show, originally conceived and directed by Broadway’s Jack O’Brien for the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, is an utter delight. Its briskly-paced, intermission-less 90 minutes are a perfect start to any family’s holiday season.

John Larroquette kicks the musical off as Old Max, the senior version of the Grinch’s put-upon pet. While Larroquette — saddled with a bulky dog costume and Seussian rhyming exposition — didn’t always seem to have his heart in the role, he displayed good humor and a fine singing voice. Fortunately, James Royce Edwards balanced Larroquette nicely as Max’s rowdy younger incarnation. The entire supporting cast, consisting of both stage veterans and a gaggle of locally recruited kids as the various citizens of Whoville, was great.

Of course, the star of the show is the Grinch. Christopher Lloyd was initially cast but, rumor has it, wasn’t up to the part’s vocal demands, so in rode Stefan Karl to the rescue! Karl is a younger, attractive man but you wouldn’t know it, swaddled head to toe as he is in green hair and make-up. While his interpretation of the character owes more than a bit to Jim Carrey’s over-the-top performance as the Grinch in the garish 2000 movie adaptation, Karl succeeds by the final curtain in making the role hilariously and touchingly his own. His solo number “One of a Kind,” performed in front of a shimmering green curtain, is a showstopper in the best sense.

The score, by Timothy Mason and Mel Marvin, is entirely serviceable if not particularly memorable apart from the two songs — “Welcome, Christmas” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” — carried over from the original TV telling of Seuss’ story. John Lee Beatty’s snow-covered but colorful scenic design is excellent, and some wonderful special effects are utilized that make it appear Max and the Grinch’s sleigh are really flying. One would have to be a Grinch him- or herself to not enjoy How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It runs at the Pantages through January 3 and shouldn’t be missed.

When it comes to flying, though, Disney’s and Cameron Mackintosh’s Mary Poppins (playing at the Ahmanson through February 7) actually goes Grinch one better. Faithful in this regard to author P.L. Travers’ source material as well as to Julie Andrews’ immortal, Oscar-winning portrayal in the 1964 film, Mary flies. She flies across the stage not once but twice during the course of the stage version. However, the best effect is saved for last, as Mary flies not only across the stage but out from the proscenium and over the audience up to the balcony! I gasped. My partner gasped. Dick Van Dyke, who was sitting three rows ahead of us, gasped. And then the audience burst, appropriately, into raucous applause.

The show’s special effects are consistently dazzling and, combined with the marvelous Tony Award-winning sets by Bob Crowley and Howard Harrison’s lighting, create an aura of true and sustained magic. Ashley Brown’s lovely, funny performance as Mary, which she re-creates from the original New York cast, is also a vital contribution in this regard.

But the stage version isn’t as easy to love as the movie for several reasons. First, in re-structuring the script from the well-known film and adding new songs (by the Honk! team of George Stiles and Anthony Drewe) to the now-classics composed by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, Mary Poppins has become a more meandering, overly long (at nearly three hours) production. I left the opening night performance more appreciative than ever of the Sherman brothers’ simple lyrics and wordplay. None of the new songs are as instantly memorable or hummable as “A Spoonful of Sugar” or “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” although “Anything Can Happen” comes closest and Mary’s self-intro, “Practically Perfect,” is nice and enjoyably staged.

Second, Matthew Bourne’s choreography is often overly frenetic. I love Bourne’s adult-oriented dance pieces that include his all-male Swan Lake, the homoerotic The Car Man, and Edward Scissorhands. When Bourne stages isolated dances rather than dance-through pieces, as in Mary Poppins, his high-energy moves can seem odd and disjointed. This is especially evident in his letter-by-letter take on “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” Obviously demanding on the cast, it is impressive the first time around but becomes excessive by the second, curtain-call reprise. Bourne’s choreography for “Step in Time” is, to the contrary, masterful.

Finally, this Mary Poppins is a darker work than the Disney film and some scenes (notably those involving Mary’s brimstone and treacle-bearing “holy terror” replacement) may be too intense for children ages 7 and under. The potential unemployment of George Banks (a well-modulated turn by Karl Kenzler) and subsequent pending homelessness of his family is a lengthier threat on the stage than it is in the movie as well.

It takes more than spectacle and impressive special effects to make a modern musical work. Still, I recommend Mary Poppins despite its artistic shortcomings for the one thing it has in spades: magic.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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