Don’t look now, but there’s a classically trained actor inside that Grinch suit.
Stefan Karl graduated from the Icelandic Academy of Arts in Reykjavík and is a National Theatre of Iceland alumni. He’s played Cyrano and Puck, the demented dentist in Little Shop of Horrors and dancing man Cosmo Brown in Singin’ in the Rain. This is the fourth season he’s slithering into the green fur that defines the Seussian scoundrel with garlic in his soul.
Karl, a stage, film and TV actor, may be best known as villain Robbie Rotten from the 2004-07 Nickelodeon series “LazyTown.” The show, now a Turner Broadcasting property, will be back in production this year, filming 26 new episodes. Come Christmas 2012, however, Karl will be back to harass all of Who-ville.
“I just can’t stop it,” says Karl, a theater guy at heart, “It’s so much fun.”
Karl’s “Christmas season” began in late October when Grinch principals began rehearsing in New York. It will end Dec. 31 in San Francisco after the company has done about 85 shows in seven weeks. That up to 15 shows a week, sometimes three a day. Getting into the Grinchy gear takes Karl about two hours. His face is hand-painted before he dons costume and wigs, and is then wired for sound.
But that’s not why the Grinch hates Christmas.
“I don’t think he hates Christmas,” Karl says. “He’s just confused by what Christmas is all about until he meets Cindy-Lou Who.”
Dr. Seuss’ children’s book, which created the “Grinch” franchise in 1957, is as relevant today as it was then and in 1966, when the TV special that airs annually without fail first entertained fans, the tall and the small.
What Dr. Seuss is trying to tell us,” says Karl, is that Christmas is “not about the packages and boxes and bags. It’s about what’s inside and the meaning behind it that matters.”
The musical, officially titled Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, had its genesis at the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis in 1994. But this candy-colored version began in 1998 at San Diego’s Old Globe under the direction of then-Artistic Director Jack O’Brien, a multiple Tony Award winner for both plays and musicals. It features 10 songs: the original “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome, Christmas” (by Albert Hague and Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Geisel) and eight others written by Mel Marvin and Timothy Mason.
That staging, now in its 14th season at the Old Globe, led to limited Broadway runs in 2006 and 2007, and looks much more like the classic TV special than the book, which even the famously green Grinch is illustrated in red, black and white pencil drawings.
“Jack made it very clear to us that he wanted to see a show for children that had all the theater magic possible, because this might be their first theater experience and we didn’t want disappoint them,” Karl says.
Karl knows a little about what appeals to children. He’s the father of four (ages 3, 4, 10 and 16) and began performing at age 12 himself, at a community theater in his native Iceland that encouraged the young actors to write their own shows.
“Pretty much from that time, it was no turning back for me,” he says. “I kept trying to find another profession, but it kept pulling me back and back. I just love theater. I think theater is a media that is going to live forever.”
As the creature whose heart is as empty as a hole, one who has the gall to impersonate Santy Claus, Karl exudes a rubber-faced physicality and the graceful mincing steps of a true baddie. At 6-foot-3, he looms evilly over his fellow actors. All the Whos, he says, from Cindy-Lou to Grandpa, are picked by size, so the Grinch purposely looks bigger.
It’s all a part of the magic, of theater and the season, as even this time-tested meanie comes to realize.
“Maybe Christmas,” he thinks, “doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas … perhaps … means a little bit more.”
Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical plays the Fox Theatre Nov. 29-Dec. 4.
Kathy Janich is an Atlanta theater artist, freelance writer and daily newspaper refugee. She is resources manager at Atlanta’s Synchronicity Theatre. Visit synchrotheatre.com.