The closing of “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical’’ a couple of months ago was a darned shame, because that quirky extravaganza delivered the kind of out-of-left-field joy that is both rare and needed in our current Era of Bad Feelings.
Another always-scarce commodity is comic talent at the level possessed by British actor Gavin Lee. An uncommonly agile fellow — physically, verbally, facially — Lee earned a Tony nomination in 2007 for his portrayal of Bert the chimney sweep in “Mary Poppins,’’ then nabbed another nom (as they say in Variety) for his flatly hilarious performance as Squidward Q. Tentacles, SpongeBob’s ultra-cranky neighbor in Bikini Bottom.
Ultimately, Broadway’s loss proved to be Boston’s gain: The shuttering of “SpongeBob’’ meant that Lee was available to play the green-furred meanie of the title in the national touring production of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical,’’ which has arrived at the Boch Center Wang Theatre.
And a very good thing, too, because this messy show doesn’t have a whole lot else going for it. Whenever Lee is offstage — and often, frankly, when he is on, there being limits to any performer’s ability to elevate material this weak — “Grinch’’ stands revealed as a half-hearted exercise in brand extension.
It’s a grimly ironic fate for this particular story. As originally written in rhyme and illustrated by Springfield’s Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!’’ delivered a slyly pointed critique of the commercialization of the yuletide holiday within its tale of the Grinch’s Scrooge-like journey from curmudgeonly to cuddly.
That 1957 children’s book remains a treasure, and so does the 1966 animated TV movie, codirected by the great Chuck Jones and featuring Boris Karloff at his most delectably creepy in the dual roles of Narrator and Grinch.
Since then, though, the franchise has slid downhill faster than the Grinch’s careening descent to Whoville on that overloaded sleigh. First came the mediocre 2000 live-action film starring Jim Carrey, and then this hyperactive musical, which premiered on Broadway in 2006. (I haven’t seen the new animated version featuring the voice of Benedict Cumberbatch.)
The show’s only true standout songs were written half a century ago: namely, the immortal “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch’’ and “Welcome, Christmas,’’ both of them composed for the cartoon special by Albert Hague, with lyrics by Dr. Seuss. By contrast, the score created for the musical adaptation (music by Mel Marvin, lyrics by Timothy Mason, who also wrote the book) is largely forgettable, starting with an opening number, “Who Likes Christmas,’’ sung by the merrily cavorting citizens of Whoville, that is cloying enough to bring out your inner Grinch.
Mackenzie Mercer (who will alternate in the role with Avery Sell) does make for a perky Cindy Lou Who. It is Cindy Lou, of course, whose innocence melts, or rather enlarges, the once-icy heart of the Grinch. Functioning as narrator is Old Max (Ken Land), the Grinch’s now-wizened dog, and let me tell you he’s pretty tepid company compared to Boris Karloff. Aleksa Kurbalija plays Young Max, while Stuart Zagnit is marooned in the gratingly unfunny role of Grandpa Who. As for Papa Who (Danny Gurwin), Mama Who (Jacquelyn Piro Donovan), and Grandma Who (Rosemary Loar), they collectively add up to: Who Cares?
For long stretches of the 90-minute production, you sit there inside the Wang Theatre helplessly asking yourself another question — “Why?’’ — even though you know the answer. (It’s a five-letter word starting with “m’’ and rhyming with funny, which “Grinch” seldom is.) In place of the witty, impish spirit of the book and the original animated version, this “Grinch’’ opts for a hectic, throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach that reeks of desperation. What it seldom reeks of is creativity.
Except, that is, when Lee is executing some cleverly balletic bit of business onstage, or making an entrance by acrobatically slinking down the side of the proscenium arch, or turning the phrase “Ho ho ho’’ into an expression of utterly Grinchy grumpiness. My sentiments exactly.
DR. SEUSS’ HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS! THE MUSICAL
Book and lyrics by Timothy Mason. Music by Mel Marvin. Directed by Matt August. Presented by Boch Center and Madison Square Garden Company. At Boch Center Wang Theatre, Boston, through Dec. 9. Tickets start at $25, 800-982-2787, www.bochcenter.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin