Turning a beloved book or animation into a live-action film or live theater is a thankless task, especially when the original is a slim volume like Dr. Seuss’s 1957 children’s classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” The 1966 animated version for TV, with songs by Albert Hague and narration by Boris Karloff, is a classic in its own right, and, at 26 minutes, a model of restraint in front of the roast beast. Ron Howard’s 2000 film ballooned to 104 minutes, stuffing itself with, among other things, an un-Seussian romance between Jim Carrey’s Grinch and Christine Baranski’s Martha May Whovier.
“Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical,” which made its first visit to Boston in 2008 and this year has returned to the Citi Wang Theatre, just 80 minutes with no intermission. All the same, it’s a contemporary Broadway musical with treacly dialogue and a stocking full of undistinguished new songs. The holiday spirit is out in full force, but a single serving might make you glad Christmas comes but once a year.
There’s no way, of course, that any real-life Grinch could be as cute as Dr. Seuss’s spindly green meanie with the oversize head and beady eyes. Jeff McCarthy, who in costume looks like the Jolly Green Giant, goes instead for attitude, targeting audience members as possible Whos and asking of his Santa jacket, “Does this make my butt look hairy?” His vocal style channels Jimmy Durante and Carol Channing with a hint of Marilyn Monroe; there are worse models. At one point Saturday afternoon he made reference to Mitt Romney’s “47 percent,” but it got lost in the swell of the live orchestra.
The Whos, on the other hand, seem frozen in the ’50s. They all have tubby middles; they’re dressed in candy-cane red, pink, and white, in designs that favor chevrons and horizontal stripes. Led by Cindy-Lou Who’s parents, Mama Who (Natalie Hill) and Papa Who (Paul Aguirre) and her grandparents (Rosemary Loar and Philip Hoffman), they sing, “It’s not the gift you give but the thought that counts,” but they stress out over Christmas shopping all the same, darting from the Snaffer Snoof Whotique to Bizilbix and Wums. It’s mostly innocent stuff, noisemaking instruments and jump ropes and scooters, though Mama and Papa Who do splurge on a tiny, sweet red rocking horse for Cindy-Lou that “costs a fortune” and looks like a chihuahua with ears blowing in the wind.
The story is narrated as a recollection by the Grinch’s long-suffering dog, Old Max (Ken Land), whom I at first mistook for a giant squirrel. He’s a soothing counterpart to the hyperactive Young Max (Gilbert L. Bailey II), who tells us straight off, “I’m one hot dog this time of year.”
“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome, Christmas” return from the 1966 animation; Old Max even leads “Mean One” as an audience sing-along. The show boasts a surfeit of new tunes, none memorable, with lyrics like “Now the clocks are all wound up / Ticking off the hours / Now the gifts are all bound up / Tied with bows and flowers.”
But there are some fetching, Seuss-inspired visual elements, like the Whos’ shaggy-haired houses and horseshoe-shaped fridges. I loved the video projection of the Santa-capped Grinch lashing the reindeer-antlered Young Max through the snow as their sleigh races toward Whoville. Abigail Shapiro (who shares the role with Tori Feinstein) is a lovable Cindy-Lou with a voice that would do justice to “Annie.” And if the musical is as inflated as the sack the Grinch fills with Who goodies, at least Dr. Seuss’s Christmas message emerges intact. Pass the Who pudding.