Playing title character in “Grinch” fulfills a childhood dream for actor Philip Huffman
Actor says playing lead character in “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical” allows him to fulfill a childhood dream.
“I’m the youngest of four and I grew up at the height of Dr. Seuss’ fame. I remember enviously wanting to be a part of Seuss world,” actor Philip Huffman said. “Stepping into it now is a little surreal.”
Huffman isn’t just stepping into the world of Dr. Seuss. He’s donning the too-tight shoes of the Grinch in the touring production of “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical” playing at Proctors from Wednesday through Dec. 9.
In a phone conversation from a location definitely north of Who-ville but not atop Mount Crumpit, Huffman discussed portraying one of the mosticonic pop culture figures of the past 60 years and how to present a story that’s been mined for two motion pictures and the 1966 TV special that’s part of the holiday canon.
“There’s so many versions that you never know what people will expect,” he said. “Stepping into the role, you know people identify and come in with a preconceived notion of what to expect.
“As long as you stick to the pureness (of the character): he’s isolated, but doesn’t admit he wants to be a part of a family and community,” Huffman continued. “We’ve all felt lonely, envious, we’ve all had those feelings. The fundamentals are in us.”
This rendition of “Grinch” takes a different narrative approach than the other adaptations. It’s narrated by Max, the Grinch’s faithful canine companion, as a senior dog. He’s looking back on his favorite memory, the day his owner’s small heart grew three sizes upon the realization that Christmas is about love and friendship, not packages, boxes or bags.
It’s also the story of Cindy-lou Who, the young girl who reaches out and changes the Grinch’s life perspective. Cindy-lou is the one who asks the in-disguise Grinch, “Santy Claus, why, why are you taking our Christmas tree? WHY?”
“For me, my favorite scene is when Cindy-lou Who challenges Grinch,” Huffman remarked. “He’s thinking he’s so genius, thinking that he outwitted a 2-year-old. But she really traps this curiosity in part of himself.
“It’s a challenging part to get across with the audience (as an actor),” he added. “There’s more depth to it (the scene). You never expect there to be as much depth as there is. Without knowing it, you’ve learned a lesson.”
The new animated feature film also uses that scene as a teachable moment. Currently playing in cinemas, “The Grinch” has been a consistent box office draw since opening Nov. 9. While it seems like having it running in theaters concurrently with this production would feel like a competition for a similar audience, Huffman thinks the film has helped give the play a boost.
“Actually, what I find this year is that the movie has revitalized interest in the franchise,” Huffman said. “I think people tend, especially with multiple versions, people put their own fingerprint on what’s important: It’s a multigenerational story, we all have own visions of what the Grinch is.
“No matter what that vision is, people will go back and read the source material,” he noted. “You can’t escape the message of togetherness, acceptance of the unknown, just because people are different doesn’t mean you should fear them.”
While nailing the message of “Grinch” is essential, getting the look of the main character and his surroundings are also a must. Huffman’s Grinch costume is a heavy, three-layer suit. As a “very physical actor who enjoy(s) physical comedy,” he’s taken steps to ensure that the suit doesn’t become a burden.
“I tend to sweat a lot, so I have to be on top of hydration,” he said. “I drink three liters of water per show. And they keep it cool backstage so I don’t have heat stroke.”
For the sets, the designers relied upon the book’s original artwork. The result is something that sucks you into that “Seuss world” Huffman wanted to be a part of as a child.
“I think it’s extremely honoring the style of Seuss’ creativity,” Huffman enthused. “The set designers stuck to the images within the book itself. The only challenging thing you’d think is Dr. Seuss only used like three different colors in the original book.
“It’s an interesting undertaking,” he continued. “I’ve seen the show from the audience perspective. It’s like watching the book come to life. It’s its own entity. Being able to pass that down to audience members, having that opportunity, is a long-awaited one.”
Jim Shahen Jr. is a frequent contributor to the Times Union.
“Dr. SEUSS’ How THE Grinch Stole christmas! THE musical”