In Matthew Lombardo’s one-woman show Who’s Holiday! (directed by Carl Andress), Cindy Lou Who is all grown up — and she isn’t quite the adorable child you remember from Dr. Seuss’s classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Chronicling the forty years that have passed since Cindy caught the Grinch in her living room, Lombardo’s sixty-minute R-rated comedy, spoken entirely in rhyming couplets, is a comic tour de force performed by Lesli Margherita. After dancing her way to Broadway as the title character’s superficial mother in Matilda the Musical, Margherita stole the scene as a temperamental leading lady in Dames at Sea. Now headlining her very first solo piece, she veritably bursts with life onstage, bearing cocktails and Christmas decorations and, at times, moving into song (including a ferocious rap performance and a wistfully moving rendition of “Blue Christmas”). Her Cindy, who speaks confessionally, and frankly, to the audience, is preparing to host a holiday party for her friends.
Decidedly not family-friendly, Who’s Holiday! features an interspecies relationship, an unwed mother, incarceration, and sobering accounts of both racism and spousal abuse. It also reveals Cindy Lou Who to be a woman who, faced with some painfully hard knocks, nevertheless manages to survive and even thrive. As played by the Olivier Award–winning actress Margherita, Cindy is a middle-aged woman speaking in a youthfully naive voice who frequently utters profanities in between large swallows of liquor; like the dark roots sprouting through her blonde hair, sadness and regret seep into her story. Margherita talked with the Voice about her experience working on the show.
What is your history with the Grinch and Cindy Lou Who? Were you a fan of the book and movie?
I grew up watching the animated special. I love Dr. Seuss, but I was more of a Go, Dog. Go! girl. I liked the Grinch, but my favorite character was always Max the dog. I was never a Cindy Lou fan. I didn’t connect with her. Now, I’ll never look at her the same.
This is your first one-woman show. You began rehearsals November 1 and opened November 28. How did you create the character of Cindy Lou Who so fully in such a short period of time?
Most of it was the memorization of everything. That had to come first, before I could layer a character onto it. The rhyming, which I thought would make it easier, actually made it more difficult. If I screw up one word, I’m dead. I was having the hardest time with that. But for some reason, she really came easily to me. I understood her. I find myself drawn to women who go through it and pick themselves up. It’s kind of a story about redemption and perseverance and dealing with the cards you got and what you do with them.
I’ve seen you sing and dance on Broadway, but I didn’t know you could rap.
I didn’t know I could rap either. That was a wonderful surprise for me as well. I actually am a huge hip-hop and rap fan and always have been my whole life. So I was already [familiar with] it; I just had never done it in public. [Surprisingly], the rap actually came pretty naturally. Now I might have another career. Who knows?
Cindy Lou Who has not had it easy. She’s been rejected by her family, her friends, even the legal system. And now the declines to her party invitations are rolling in one by one. How did you create such moving vulnerability in a character who only has a few lines in a children’s book?
That was what really drew me to the script, to the show — the fact that you see what you think is a perfect little girl, and then what happens [after that stage]. Life for all of us is ups and downs, and I’m always interested in showing that things aren’t so great. There is a point where she talks about the choices that she made. She’s not blaming everyone. It really started when she was a kid. Her parents wanted her to be one way, and for her to actually have the strength to say, “I love this weird person [the Grinch] that no one thinks I should be with but I’m going to marry him anyway,” I feel is so important now.
I felt very strongly about showing the vulnerability of her. They’re all things we’re dealing with now in this crazy world, and it was very valid to me. I think for her, we want the audience to kind of fall in love with this fun party girl, but you also care about her. It was really, really important to me and for all of us to go there. I can sense the audience when it first starts to go there; they’re a little uncomfortable. And then they’re in it. But there’s a minute where they’re going, “Am I supposed to laugh at this?” That’s what’s so great about it. People come up to me afterward and are like, “It was uplifting. I feel like I could do anything.”
The audience gets to be a part of the show — sometimes whether they like it or not. You single them out to have drinks onstage with you, and you tease them throughout the show and even serve audience members pigs in a blanket. How much of your interaction with the audience is planned, and how much is improvised?
There’s a skeleton of what needs to happen, but every night is completely different. It’s improvised depending on the audience. They kind of leave that up to me — to comment on everything. That’s the wild card. Every night it’s different because of who I pick. Some nights I’m like, “Oh, Les, why, why, why did you pick this person?” I’ve gotten — a few times — people that maybe were wannabe actors, “This isn’t my first time onstage, you know!” and I have to be like, “This is not your show!” We have contingency plans. But every single one of those contingency plans happened in the first week of previews. You kind of have to roll with the punches. It’s the wild card, but it’s also kind of fun as well.
You created a very distinctive voice for Cindy — a combination of world-weary woman and innocent young child. Do you ever find yourself talking in Cindy’s voice outside of the theater?
No, but I’ll be speaking and then I’ll think of a rhyme. And I’m like, “Oh, wait. I don’t have to rhyme in my own life.”