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Playing the Grinch at the Wang

By R.J. Donovan, special to the BIR, November 2, 2012

When “Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical” brings its tinsel and bows into The Citi Wang Theatre for a two-week run (November 23-December 9), it’s unlikely you’ll recognize Jeff McCarthy in the lead role.

It’s not that you haven’t seen the six-foot-two baritone before. He’s got 250 theater productions under his belt, eight starring roles on Broadway – including “Les Miserables,” “Chicago,” “Side Show” and “Urinetown” – six feature films, and almost four dozen TV appearances to his credit.

However, to take on the role of The Grinch, he’ll have to slither into a matted fur costume and obliterate his face with green makeup. Isn’t that an actor’s, not to be recognizable?

“It’s an anonymous gig,” Jeff said, laughing, when we spoke by phone during a rehearsal break. “But it’s a blast. And the music is great.”

Describing the transformative power of the costume and the makeup, he said, “It suddenly liberates you. In all sorts of weird ways. We went in to do a radio interview and we had security problems. I didn’t bring my license with me, not that it would have helped, because the picture looks nothing like what I look like in the makeup. But the guard would not let us [in]. And I became . . . fearless. I would never be that way if I hadn’t had the costume on. It’s an interesting experience.”

At The Wang, audiences will have the opportunity to rediscover Dr. Seuss’s time-honored holiday tale of the far-from-merry Grinch. With a heart “two sizes too small,” he plots to steal Christmas from the holiday-spirited Whos down in Whoville. However, through the course of the story, narrated by Max The Dog, he realizes there’s more to Christmas than he first thought. The stage production features a full score, including “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome Christmas” from the beloved animated TV special.

The original Seuss book, published in 1957, featured black and white drawings. It was when The Grinch made his TV debut in 1966, featuring the voice of Boris Karloff, that the cantankerous curmudgeon became green, thanks to legendary animator Chuck Jones.

In an interesting coincidence, many years later Jones hired Jeff to become the voice of the iconic Michigan J. Frog on the WB Network. Now, with Jones gone, Jeff’s portraying the The Grinch, with whom Jones became so strongly identified. Plus, he remains good friends with Chuck’s daughter.

Raised in California and classically trained, Jeff took to the stage at an early age. In high school he had the chance to perform in Europe, although the company played some unusual locations. “I had this great, great drama teacher and he took us on a tour of Great Britain,” he said. “We played in a mental institution up in Scotland where they had to lock us in the dressing rooms when we weren’t on stage. And I was playing the fool in this production. So I was the one that all the [patients] wanted, the one they identified with. Some of them were approaching the stage during the performance and had to be led back by security people.”

It was also fortuitous that he lived in Santa Maria, California, not far from The Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts. “It was all just luck for me that I grew up in that town, otherwise surrounded by broccoli fields and cattle farmers . . . the (PCPA Theaterfest) was the biggest theater festival on the West Coast in the 70s. It was bigger than the San Diego Globe … a huge operation.

“I studied there and did a million plays. One of the directors took us on a USO tour all over South East Asia. We did ‘Once Upon A Mattress’ and a little 30s cabaret show that we played in the DMZ – you know, between North and South Korea. That was amazing. We played Iwo Jima and Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, the Philippines, all over the place.”

Early in his career, McCarthy worked on the short-lived Broadway musical, “Smile,” with music by Marvin Hamlisch. Recalling the late composer, he said, “He was a delightful guy. He remembered everybody he ever met by their name, by their face . . . he was a special guy in that way. When we had our first ‘Smile’ party, it was out at his house in The Hamptons. Diane Sawyer was there, Brook Shields was there, all of these celebrities. He cast a wide net as far as his social life went.”

Although “Grinch” will mark Jeff’s first professional appearance in Boston, he has maintained a special connection to the city over the past few years. “My daughter graduated from Emerson in May. She’s a casting director out in Los Angeles. I’ve done The Berkshire Festival and I’ve done Barrington Stage several times, but never played Boston.”

It was in Western Massachusetts that Jeff first connected with his Irish past. He said when he was growing up in California, people didn’t necessarily pay a lot of attention to family ancestry. “My father would put on a green tie on St. Patrick’s Day and that was sort of the extent of it.”

However, “at The Berkshire Festival, about 13 years ago, I did a show called ‘Brimstone,’ which is all about Northern Ireland. … it was the first time that I keyed into all that. It was an amazing thing how I felt the music and the dialect. All of that came very easily, it felt very familiar. And then on Broadway, I did ‘The Pirate Queen” (based on the life and adventures of 16th century Irish chieftain and pirate Gráinne O’Malley). The producers were Irish and we had a lot of ‘Riverdance’ dancers involved.”

Despite his travels, Jeff admits he’s yet to visit Ireland. “I’ve been to Scotland and Wales and England. That’s bound to be my next vacation. I’ll finally get over there and take my daughters with me.”

In the meantime, the focus is on Seuss. Although he has played high profile roles ranging from Javert to Agamemnon, Jeff said this particular production is special because, “I’ve never done anything like this. The Grinch is from the candy bowl for the holiday season.”

R. J. Donovan is publisher of OnStageBoston.com.
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“Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical,” Nov. 23 – Dec. 9, Citi Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont St., Boston. Tickets: 866-348-9738 or citicenter.org.

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