In the interest of full disclosure (and to recap for those of you who don't read my blog regularly): I am not a Will Ferrell fan at all; I have never seen the film version of the musical I am reviewing; and I generally dislike "holiday" shows because they tend to be sappy, over-romanticized, and cheesy in the most obnoxious way. And so, Elf: The Musical had a certain advantage over other movie-turned-stage musical shows in that I was completely fresh to the property. I cannot speak to how it compares; I can only speak to how it impressed me. On the other hand, the show also had a bit of a disadvantage going in, because, fair or not, I am generally unimpressed with shows of this type. Well, let your eye wander up the screen and note my "grade". Clearly, this show struck a positive chord with me after all. And the reasons are quite clear.
I have long been a fan of the writing team - Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin since I saw Hairspray and The Drowsy Chaperone, respectively. And to be perfectly honest, I went in expecting less, as Meehan's book for Annie is exactly the kind of treacly sweet thing I dislike, and I HATED The Producers. I think Mr. Martin, endlessly creative, smooth with the "wink and nudge" and endlessly smart with Chaperone was the perfect balance in a writing partner. And, I am sure that some credit must go to the screen writers of the film for no screen to stage translation goes on without borrowing scenes and plot order. Regardless, the book goes a long, long way toward making this a stage musical that works. There isn't much fluff, and the book scenes both support and blend nicely with the musical moments. Not one scene felt prolonged and not one number felt tacked on - even the reprises. Also, the book strikes the perfect balance between giving holiday show lovers a healthy dose of Christmas cheer and musical lovers in general plenty of story to chew on. Perhaps the best element of all is that they have not forgotten the adults in the audience. There are some pretty heft swear words and more than a couple double entendres to keep the over 10 set happy, not mention a nice sprinkling of reality (the food cart bits and Santa with an iPad are timely and a riot of fun).
Ah, but this is a musical, and the music is brand new, not a classic Christmas jingle in the bunch. No
Technically, the show is almost aces, too. The scenery (designed by David Rockwell) has to do a lot in a little space, and the details on the set pieces are clever and plentiful - Buddy's North Pole bedroom and the toyshop are both a visual feast, and the "reality" of New York City never lets us forget that Buddy sees it as a snow globe, so it is squeaky clean. But you'd have to be a complete Scrooge not to be impressed with the simplicity of Tavern on the Green or the sheer size of his Rockefeller Center ice rink set. Natasha Katz's lighting, while not ground breaking, always brightens where it needs to and offers darker contrasts when things get serious. Similarly, you can't really say too much about the New Yorkers' street clothes - they are appropriate and the cast looks just like people you bump into while trying to look at the windows on 5th Avenue. But you can practically squeal with childish delight at designer Gregg Barnes' fanciful and rainbow bright elf costumes. And his menagerie of "fake Santas" is a fashion show - variations on a theme - in and of itself.
The cast, on the other hand, is uniformly excellent. The truly marvelous dancers, who must be exhausted after a performance - they run, jog, do the soft shoe, tap dance, and even dance on their knees - look to be having the time of their lives executing choreographer Casey Nicholaw's vigorous routines, all of which have that modern razzle dazzle feel to go with the classic Broadway style which matches the book, the score and his own direction. A lot of effort was spent by each ensemble member to create interesting characters that you could understand from a brief glance or a longer look, and best of all, not an "upstager" amongst them!
TV and stage favorite George Wendt nicely book ends the show as Santa himself. And he sets the tone right off with a very glib and very funny cell phone/candy wrapper message. How nice to see, too, a Santa with flaws to go along with his ho-ho-ho; this Santa is a DVR hating snackaholic with a sassy wife and great deal of self-effacing humor. Wendt plays each moment with flare and conviction. As the Macy's store manager, Michael Mandell, is a cuddly teddy bear of energy and eager to please sincerity as he thinks he is being tested by the corporate honchos he thinks have sent Buddy the Elf to his store. And what holiday tale would be complete without the unchanging villain? In this case Michael McCormick, as the gruff book mogul who holds an entire company hostage with his demands on Christmas Eve, and out bah humbugs Ebenezer by a mile. And what office comedy would be complete without the smarty pants secretary who keeps the show on the road? Enter one of Broadway's unsung heroes, the always delightful actress/dancer Valerie Wright, whose dance steps should be welcome in Chicago any time, and whose smile would light an entire marquee. She plays the long-suffering, but never-gonna-let-the-boss-get-the-best-of-me Deb, and she brings an extra jolt of energy to the stage every time she appears.
Mark Jacoby, contrary to the message boards and a few reviews, is anything but wooden. He has found the perfect balance between unthinking workaholic, mean boss, and desperate ladder climber to make his gruff scenes work. Yet he still manages to give us hints that there is a decent father and husband underneath the harsh veneer. You never doubt that his does what he is doing for his family, even as he pretty much ignores them to get things done. And by showing us those brief "nice guy" glimpses, it makes perfect sense and is still delightful when he finally melts, stands up for himself and rejoins his thrilled family. Amy Spanger as the hard as nails, no Christmas spirited Jovie is a delight as well. It is hard to make someone who is disagreeable and likable at the same time, and Ms. Spanger does this beautifully. Somehow, you can see why Buddy is smitten with her at first sight AND see why she is so miserable. And boy, can she sing! Her "Never Fall in Love" is belted nicely and will probably become an audition staple. And the absolute glee on her face when she gets to ice skate in the snow (which she has never seen before) at the ice rink is priceless and made me smile BIG!
(Photos by Joan Marcus)
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