Old Globe, KPBS to present radio version of ‘Grinch’ musical this year

Edward Watts in The Old Globe's "Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas!"
Edward Watts will return in audio form as the Grinch in the Old Globe’s production of “Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” The play will be presented on KPBS Radio for four free performances.
(Courtesy of Jim Cox)

‘Grinch’ audio play will air free to the public four times from Thanksgiving Day to Christmas Eve


San Diego theaters may be closed indefinitely, but the Old Globe and KPBS have united this fall to make sure that COVID-19 doesn’t steal the theater’s 23rd annual production of “Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”

The evergreen holiday musical will be presented free to the public as a recorded audio play that will air four times from Thanksgiving Day to Christmas Eve on KPBS Radio, 89.5 FM.

The actors — including Edward Watts, who has played the green-skinned Grinch for the past three years — have all recorded their parts from home via Zoom.

Old Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein said the theater’s box office has been bombarded by calls and emails all year from concerned local residents who have made attending the “Grinch” their annual family holiday tradition.

“After I moved here eight years ago, everywhere I went around town I’d run into people saying ‘we love the Grinch.’ It seemed inseparable from the identity of the Globe and the holidays in this city,” Edelstein said.

When it became clear in June that the pandemic would keep theater doors closed through 2020, Edelstein said the Globe team began brainstorming ways to make the “Grinch” happen in a safe, socially-distant way. The ideas included doing a drive-in show or a concert version, but they finally decided a radio adaptation would work the best.

“Radio is such an imaginative medium,” Edelstein said. “For me, the intimacy of having this thing in your ears and closing your eyes and having to remember what it’s like in the theater and conjure up those images ... that just seemed the most touching and meaningful way to do it.”

Initially, Globe officials planned to record the show and post it the theater’s website, but then they spoke with KPBS officials, who happily signed on as a partner and host. KPBS General Manager Tom Karlo said station officials are thrilled at the opportunity, which reminds him of the early days of radio when families would gather around to listen together to audio dramas.

“Today the radio experience has expanded via smart speakers, web streams, the KPBS app and traditional radio devices. I hope that in whatever manner families listen, they feel their hearts grow three sizes with joy in hearing this iconic story and sharing the experience
alongside their community,” Karlo said in a statement.

The audio version of the Grinch is being directed by James Vásquez, who has worked on the show for the past 18 years, the first seven as a performer and dance captain, and the past 11 years as its director. He said the recordings of the 22-member cast, who worked with a digital-capture score recorded during a previous performance at the Globe, recently wrapped up and the show is now in the editing stages.

Vásquez said all of the sung parts were recorded separately and are now being layered together. But the spoken dialogue was recorded via Zoom with all of the actors together in the same digital space to create a more lifelike and intimate performance. He said the script works surprisingly well as an audio play because it’s based on a descriptively written children’s book that’s easily read aloud.

Without dance numbers, costumes and props, Vásquez said some of the show’s quieter moments — like the conversation between the Grinch and little Cindy-Lou Who on Christmas night — have a deeper resonance. And the orchestra’s often-overlooked, plot-driven underscoring takes on a personality of its own.

“When we’re having to paint the picture with our words rather than dancing across the stage, it forced us to go, ‘oh, there’s a little more there,’ ” he said.

The “Grinch” musical, with book and lyrics by Timothy Mason and music by Mel Marvin, premiered at the Old Globe in 1998. It’s based on the 1957 book by former La Jolla resident Ted “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, with additional songs from the 1966 animated TV adaptation. It’s the story of a lonely mountain creature who is so jealous of the holiday celebration in nearby Whoville that he dresses as Santa and steals all of their presents on Christmas morning.

The “Grinch” broadcasts will be presented at noon Thanksgiving Day, as well as at noon on Dec. 5 and 20, and finally at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Some of the surround events that usually accompany the show will be done virtually this year. The Globe’s 15th annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony will be livestreamed at 6 p.m. Nov. 22 on its website and social media pages. And its annual sensory-friendly AXIS performance for audience members on the autism spectrum will be presented online from 10 a.m. to noon Dec. 20 on the Globe’s YouTube channel.

Vásquez said audiences have been so supportive of the show over the years that he’s grateful the Globe and KPBS found a way to keep the tradition alive during a global pandemic.

“For me, the show has always been about community, tradition and inclusion,” Vásquez said. “Because of the tradition of the ‘Grinch,’ and what it has come to be in San Diego, especially this year, it feels really important that we find a way to give the gift back. I think San Diego will embrace it. It’s not the ‘Grinch’ we’ve seen every year, but it’s the ‘Grinch’ for this year.”

— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune