At least one patron sat transfixed during Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, that vaguely mushy but heartfelt season's-greeting musical now in its 10th year at The Old Globe Theatre. That's not saying much. This little girl's been to plays with me before, and her mom and I always laugh at how she totally shuts down once the lights come up. If depth of concentration were dollars and cents, the kid could have bought out Globe artistic director Jack O'Brien's contract, with room to spare for her college tuition fund and an Orange Dream at Jamba Juice (her fave).She was spared the former prospect as of Thursday, Dec. 6. That's when the theater announced that O'Brien, its artistic director since 1981 and winner of three of the last five Best Director Tony Awards, will, on Jan. 1, assume the title of artistic director emeritus. That's a fancy way of saying his role at The Globe will drastically diminish amid crushing demands on the East Coast, where he's one of the most sought-after figures in commercial and nonprofit theater today.
O'Brien, 68, numbers The Grinch among more than 60 Globe productions he's helmed; the slate includes big-name world premieres like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Full Monty. He got The Grinch to Broadway in 2006; this season, the show holds two distinctions back East: It was the first casualty of last month's stagehands strike, and a judge ruled it could reopen during the walkout because of its short holiday run. The strike ended five days later.
This time around, local Grinch audiences are treated to three new songs and a nice choreographic dust-off. The story is the brighter for it, with Kevin Bailey's wheedling Grinch effecting a flawless change of heart after he robs the residents of Whoville blind on Christmas Day. The role of Cindy-Lou Who (played on alternate nights by Skyler Starrs Siben and Gaby Greenwald) is drawn too apologetically for me. Cindy's a bright kid, but her dialogue paints her as overly naïve amid the Grinch's wholesale thievery. Melinda Gilb and Steve Gunderson hold sway as Mama and Papa Who; they're nicely typecast and are among several San Diego actors in this show.
The local connections, of course, don't stop there. The story was written by 50-year La Jolla resident Theodor Seuss Geisel, known worldwide as the iconic children's author Dr. Seuss. Geisel died in 1991 at age 87.
The Globe's new artistic directorship will be shared by longtime dramaturge Jerry Patch and Darko Tresnjak, who since 2004 has served as artistic director of the theater's summer Shakespeare festivals. The acclaimed Tresnjak, 41, fancies more obscure material, plays whose missteps may have relegated them to the depths. “Bruised beauties,” he calls them, preferring to flesh out their better qualities before consigning them to obscurity. There's a forthrightness in that phrase, one that will ideally declare itself in the theater's play choices.
Such candor similarly underscored O'Brien's shows—and although I found his direction too effusive at times, I didn't see a trace of that trait in The Grinch. If she could write, my little buddy likely would have said as much amid her own scrutiny—remember, she didn't so much as blink during the whole thing. Little did she know she was also taking in a play that marks a major transition in local theater history.
Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! runs through Dec. 30 at The Old Globe Theatre mainstage, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park. $19-$39. 619-23-GLOBE or www.oldglobe.org.