Elf the Musical
Book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin
Big on production values, small on writing
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|Elf the Musical|
Review by John Olson
As the house lights were dimming for Act One, a young boy behind me shouted, “The show’s starting!” It was the sort of hopeful anticipation I suppose all regular theater hope to regain at curtain time for each new show they attend. Certainly you hope a family show like this one will deliver a transformative experience for young theater-goers. This touring production of the musicalization of the 2003 feature film tries hard to do that, with a colorful, large scale production and a very solid cast – but while it gets off the ground and flies, it never really soars. Not in the way a feel-good family holiday story ought to, and there are many, many role models ought there to serve as a guide to accomplish just that.
The plot, adapted first for the film by David Berenbaum from a book by one Buddy Hobbs (the name of the elf character himself), owes a debt to Miracle on 34th Street; which, along with A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, is one of the top three Christmas feel-good stories of all time. Like Miracle, Elf involves a visitor to New York who claims to be from the North Pole, is judged to be mentally ill by those around him, gets a job at Macy’s and ultimately convinces a jaded parent of the true meaning of Christmas. It shouldn’t be such hard work to make an uplifting musical out of that – but then again, musicalizations of those other three stories don’t have such a great track record either.
For those unfamiliar with the plot, it goes like this. Buddy (Will Blum) is a 28-year-old who was abandoned at birth at Christmastime and accidentally taken by Santa up to the North Pole, where he was adopted and raised by the elves, When he discovers the truth about his past, he journeys down to New York to find the biological father Walter (Larry Cahn), who knew nothing of his birth and is now a harried executive of a children’s book publishing company. Walter works too hard to have time for Christmas, to the great disappointment of his wife (Julia Louise Hosack) and 12-year-old son (Noah Marlowe). At Macy’s, Buddy takes a shine to a co-worker (Lindsay Nicole Chambers) who’s not just jaded about Christmas, but about everything in life since being dumped by her boyfriend.
The book, by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, gets us to the inevitable transformations of Walter and Jovie from jaded to Christmas loving folk, with some decent laughs (along with some predictable ones) along the way. The trouble is, it’s hard to warm up too much to any of the characters. Buddy’s naiveté and relentless cheerfulness sits uncomfortably somewhere between annoying and weird – the movie role was a vehicle for Will Ferrell, after all. Walter and Jovie are a kind of cloning of Miracle on 34th Street’s Doris Walker (the Maureen O’Hara role) from one character into two – the harried businessperson AND the love interest – with neither as sympathetic as Doris Walker.
The story is matched with a score by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin that is, like Buddy, relentlessly upbeat and cheery, keeping the show’s pace and emotions all at one peppy, happy and monotonous level (though there is a nice wistful ballad for Walter’s wife and son).
Will Blum, who’s played Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon on Broadway, is a capable Buddy and agreeably carries the show as well as can be expected. He has a good sense of comic timing and a decent singing voice, somewhat in the Robert Morse-ian mold of likeable impishness. Vocally strong as well are Julia Louise Hosack as Buddy’s stepmom, Noah Marlowe as his young half-brother and Lindsay Nicole Chambers as Jovie. Ken Clement is a droll working-stiff and unsentimental Santa, while Larry Cahn gets by as Walter with what little Meehan and Martin provided for his character. The director-choreographer of the original Broadway productions in 2010 and 2011, Casey Nicholaw is not credited here. The direction and unsurprising choreography are by Sam Scalamoni and Connor Gallagher, respectively.
The scenic designs by Christine Peters are new for the tour and they’re some of the best things about this production. They’re a collection of colorfully painted flats that deliberately resemble pop-up illustrations of a children’s book – appropriately enough as the framework of the story is that Santa is reading to the audience from such a book. Ms. Peters’ designs take us from a whimsical Elves workshop to the streets of Manhattan, inside Macy’s, inside the Empire State Building and into Walter’s apartment. Costumes by Gregg Barnes – the one designer credited for this tour as well as for the Broadway original – include some very fun and colorful threads for the elves along with present day fashions for the New York scenes.
Elf the Musical is by no means a cheap-looking show. Between the visual designs and the talented, hard-working cast of 20, it has the feel of a Broadway-scale production. (The seven-piece pit band is small, but it’s enough to support this score). But the material here is just not strong enough to justify a production of this scale and expense. At top prices of up to $120.00 per ticket, there are better places to spend the money for a family of four.
Elf the Musical continues through December 15th at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph (map), with performances Tuesdays 7:30pm, Wednesdays 2pm/7:30pm, Thursdays-Fridays 7:30pm, Saturdays 2pm/8pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $18-$120, and are available by phone (800-775-2000) or online through Ticketmaster.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at BroadwayinChicago.com. (Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Amy Boyle Photography
Will Blum (Buddy), Ken Clement (Santa), Jen Bechter (Mrs. Claus, Ensemble), Drew Franklin (Charlie, Sam, Policeman, Ensemble), Julie Kotarides (Tequila, ensemble), Larry Cahn (Walter), Paul Ianniello (Matthews, Policeman, ensemble), Erick Buckley (Chadwick, fake Santa, ensemble), Julia Louise Hosack (Emily), Noah Marlowe (Michael), Lanene Charters (Deb), Giovanni Bonaventura, Eric Anthony Johnson (security guards, ensemble), Karen Hyland (Macy’s Sales Woman, ensemble), Kevyn Morrow (store manager), Lindsay Nicole Chambers (Jovie), George Franklin (little boy on Santa’s lap, ensemble), Laurent Giroux (Mr. Greenway), Audrey Cardwell (Charlotte Dennon, ensemble), Elizabeth Burton, Andrew Kreup, Emily Larger (ensemble), Chandon Jones, Drew King, Darren Biggart (swings).
behind the scenes
Sam Scalamoni (director), Connor Gallagher (choreographer), Christine Peters (scenic design), Paul Miller (lighting design), Shannon Slaton (sound design), Gregg Barnes (costume design), Bernie Ardia (hair design), Bob Kline (casting), Doug Besterman (orchestrations), John Mezzio (music supervision, conductor), David Chase (dance arrangements), John Miller (music coordinator), Nate Patten (music director), Phil Reno (vocal arrangements), Benjamin Shaw (associate director), Nancy Rene Braun (associate choreographer), Ryan B. Gibbs (production stage manager), Hector Guivas (production manager), Kary M. Walker (executive producer), Amy Boyle Photography (photos)