SAN DIEGO — Steve Gunderson joined the cast of “Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” back in 1999.
He returned to the Old Globe Theatre’s annual production the following season and again in 2003, 2005, and from 2007 through 2017.
Altogether, that’s 15 years — more than a century in “dog years”! And “dog years” are certainly an appropriate metric, given that Gunderson plays “Old Max,” the Grinch’s dog in his dotage, who looks back nostalgically and recounts the entire story as an extended flashback.
Based on the children’s book by Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, the stage musical tells the story of the Grinch, a furry, green, Scrooge-like outcast, who attempts to rob his Christmas-loving neighbors, the residents of Whoville, of their holiday spirit. Not only does his plan fail, but he finds himself discovering the joy of Christmas and the warmth of friendship.
It’s a familiar story that has been adapted previously into a cartoon and a live-action film. Now in its 20th year, Gunderson said, the Old Globe’s stage version has become “this wonderful San Diego holiday tradition” that draws audiences back year after year.
And one of the best things about this tradition is that it still feels fresh — for audiences and cast members alike.
“We’re doing the same movements and we’re singing the same notes,” Gunderson said in an Oct. 11 telephone interview with The Southern Cross, “but there’s a freshness to it … so that those people that come every year don’t just sit back in their seats and go, ‘Oh, I know how this goes.’ There’s something that feels new and exciting about it.”
Gunderson, who played the roles of “Papa Who” and “Grandpa Who” before stepping into his current role in 2011, said the fact that many cast members have come and gone over the years — this year’s Grinch and “Young Max” are both newcomers to the show — might have something to do with the energy that seems to infuse the production every year, even after two decades.
He also credits his director, James Vásquez, with encouraging him and his fellow cast members always “to think about it and make it new.”
“On the first day of rehearsal … I just feel like I’m one of the kids, in a way, and that I’ve got a lot to learn every year about how to make it better,” explained Gunderson, who said he has never been directed to just “do what you did before” in a previous season.
“That’s one of the reasons why I keep coming back,” he said, “because it just feels so fresh.”
In addition to the play itself, he said, there are also various “traditions within the tradition” that continue to enrich the Old Globe’s annual production.
Among them are the lavish decorations that completely transform the Globe’s Copley Plaza into a Seuss-inspired winter wonderland. The plaza is the site of the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony that features performances by cast members. Even though “Old Max” is not a participant in any of the songs performed at the tree lighting, Gunderson said he enjoys the ceremony so much that he’s usually there — often still in full costume — just to enjoy it as a spectator.
There is also the annual tradition of a sensory-friendly performance, featuring fewer flashing lights and loud noises as well as other slight adjustments, intended for children on the autism spectrum and families with special needs.
This year’s tree lighting ceremony will be held at 6 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 12; while the event is free, reservations are required and can be made at (619) 23-GLOBE. The sensory-friendly performance of “Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” will be at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 9.
Offering his own theory on why Dr. Seuss’s Christmas story has proven timeless, Gunderson said, “You think it’s about this monster, the Grinch, but I think it’s really about community, and acceptance, and the strength of love.”
He hopes that message is one that will touch theatergoers’ hearts this season.
It may be a “kid’s story,” Gunderson said, “but it’s not shallow.”
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.theoldglobe.org.