My enjoyment of this production came from watching a particular audience member more than the stage. It was great fun to watch a little boy of about five-years old across the aisle from me. Prior to the show starting he was standing at the railing in front of the orchestra pit talking to the musicians. During the show he was completely mesmerized by what was happening on stage. Frankly, that’s where the real magic was.
The musical is based on the 2003 movie of the same title which starred Will Ferrell in the role of Buddy. Here those giant elf shoes are filled by Sebastian Arcelus. Mr. Arcelus is eager as can be; unfortunately, it shows. Buddy is adopted by Santa (here played by George Wendt, a man who couldn’t act his way out of Santa’s sack) and raised as an elf. As he gets older, he continues to grow much larger than the other elves. Consequently, Santa must tell him that he was adopted. Buddy decides he is going to go find his biological father who lives in New York.
The rest of the cast is competent. Mark Jacoby is Buddy’s real dad, Walter Hobbs. Jacoby is talented and has a pleasant singing voice. Beth Leavel is sickly sweet as Buddy’s step-mother (frankly, I preferred her playing a drunk in the title character of The Drowsey Chaperone for which she won a Tony Award). Buddy’s half brother is well played by young Broadway veteran Matthew Gumley. Amy Spanger is Buddy’s girlfriend, Jovy. Ms. Spanger seemed more convincing as the bitchy, cynical Jovy in the first-half of the musical. In the second act she warms to Buddy’s amorous intentions and becomes goofy with love requiring her to sing “Never Fall in Love,” a sappy love-song that might have been better served with a more tongue-in-cheek approach.
Viewing this with the eyes of an adult, and not through those of the five-year old next to me, when Elf takes itself too seriously it gets in trouble and comes off corny as hell (“There is a Santa Claus”). It does have a couple of better-than-generic numbers, “Nobody Cares About Santa” and “The Story of Buddy the Elf”, but the music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Chad Beguelin are bland and forgettable. The book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin (speaking of The Drowsey Chaperone, Martin was one of the creators and its star) is serviceable but again, it tries to be all things to all audience members with both a “golly-gee-shucks” reality and “wink-wink-nudge-nudge we’re all in on it” tone.
The scenic, costume and lighting design by David Rockwell, Gregg Barnes, and Natasha Katz respectively is all lovely but there is nothing magical in the stagecraft. There are some projections designed by Zachary Borovay which are used to create a fly-by Santa that prompts the aforementioned number “There is a Santa Claus,” but that and lifting Santa off the ground 30 feet to fly his slay just doesn’t cut it in this competitive season of child-friendly programming (Think The Nutcracker, The Big Apple Circus, Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular).
Casey Nicholaw has directed and choreographed this piece. His choreography is pedestrian but otherwise the piece moves along fine aside from his aiding and abetting the aforementioned conflict in its focus.
A shout-out to orchestrator Doug Besterman for making these tunes sound like a million bucks. Another one to the producers for ponying up the money for an actual orchestra with more than just a couple of instruments and a synthesizer. They sound terrific.
I expect that the casual theatre-goer will find Elf perfectly charming. If you are serious about your theatre, you won’t be impressed with what you see here. If you are taking the kids out for a seasonal outing, this is perfectly serviceable.