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Grinch turns out to be most lovable Christmas villain

Cuddly as a cactus and charming as an eel, Patrick Page - in the title role of the musical "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" - slithers and slinks his way into being the most lovable Christmas villain.

Living just outside Whoville, the Grinch hates Christmas, all its noise, and how happy it makes the Whos. So, he hits on an idea - "a wonderful, awful idea" - to stop Christmas from coming.

The production draws from the book by Dr. Seuss (the late Theodor Geisel) and uses music from the 1966 perennial holiday animated special that introduced the songs "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and "Welcome, Christmas," with music by Broadway composer Albert Hague and lyrics by Dr. Seuss.

The show, with a limited run at the St. James Theatre, is framed by narration from Old Max, the Grinch's faithful dog, played with grandfatherly delight by Ed Nixon. Old Max tells the story of how, when he was just a young pup, he was enlisted to help the Grinch steal Christmas from the uber-cheerful Whos down in Whoville.

As Page suavely glides around the stage, expertly costumed by Robert Morgan in feathery chartreuse fur and vaguely tribal green-striped makeup, he describes his evil self to Young Max - charmingly played by Rusty Ross - in a rip-roaring solo, "One of a Kind."

This number is the best of the new songs written especially for the show by Mel Marvin and Timothy Mason. There are seven, including the "Annie"-like "Santa for a Day" and the sappy-sweet "It's the Thought That Counts." The two original songs from the animated special are well-represented and the crowd-pleaser "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" has an imaginative sing-a-long segment.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the book, and the visually arresting sets by John Lee Beatty are faithful to Dr. Seuss' wonderful illustrations. The Grinch's sleigh, laden with the Whos' presents and tipping over the edge of Mt. Crumpet, is vividly imagined as is the home of Cindy Lou Who. Costuming for the citizens of Whoville also remains true to the original drawings - adults and children alike are dressed in bulbous bubble-gum and candy-cane colors with Bozo-esque hair and elflike shoes.

The children of Whoville are clearly having a blast on stage and the rotating cast of 24 child actors is great fun to watch. The adult Whos are less interesting. But really, this story is all about the big green meanie and his (literal) change of heart. Page transforms as he hears the Whos singing, even after he's taken all of their Christmas presents. So he decides to give them back instead of dumping them off the tip of Mt. Crumpet. The joyous celebration as he returns to Whoville and helps carve the "roast beast" is full of holiday cheer with its glittering confetti and sparkling snow falling onto the audience.

The musical opened Nov. 9, but a walkout by Local 1, the stagehands union, the following day shut down more than two dozens plays and musicals. The reopening of the $6 million (4 million EUR) production was ordered last week by state Supreme Court Justice Helen Freedman. Her ruling came after hearing arguments from producers and Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns the St. James. Producers, citing a special contract between the show and Jujamcyn, wanted the show to go on. Freedman based her decision on a provision of the theater lease, and said she believed the production company would be irreparably harmed if the show was not permitted to resume its run.

The intimate atmosphere of the St. James serves the production much better than the cavernous stage of the Hilton Theatre, where the show was staged last year. Briskly directed by Matt August, based on a concept by Tony Award-winning director Jack O'Brien, this 85-minute production is just long enough to be a wonderful introduction to live theater for children. It is performed without an intermission.

This Grinch brings the Dr. Seuss classic fancifully to life - you might find your heart growing a few sizes, too.

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