Story: Buddy the elf believes he has lived his entire life at the North Pole, working with other elves making the toys that Santa Claus delivers to children around the world very early on Christmas Day. Even though he’s normal height, he’s surprised to learn from Santa that he is human and was an orphaned child who crawled into one of Santa’s empty bags one Christmas. He ended up living at the North Pole after Santa learned that Buddy’s mother had died and that her son had been put up for adoption.
Still, Santa is obligated to finally tell him that William Hobbs, aka Buddy, needs to return to his original home, New York City, where his father Walter Hobbs now lives with his wife and son. Soon Buddy makes the thousands-of-miles trek down to Gotham, still dressed in his perky uniform. He finds his dad, an unhappy businessman under pressure by his demanding boss to deliver a new hit children’s book for the holiday sales season.
Buddy is perceived as a bit wacky by one and all, but he gradually ingratiates himself with Jovie, an underling in Macy’s Christmas Land sector. Most perplexing of all to Buddy is how rampant New York City is with unbelievers. In fact, their very skepticism threatens to wreak havoc on Santa’s delivery of yuletide gifts, since his sleigh operates on faith. Can Buddy save the day?
Highlights: Elf the Musical is based on the 2003 movie that starred Will Ferrell, Bob Newhart, Zooey Deschanel, James Caan, Edward Asner and Mary Steenburgen, which raked in more than $225 million at the box office. It was a pleasant enough flick that offered something offbeat for the holiday season.
The musical version had limited runs on Broadway in 2010 and again in 2012 and also has spawned a couple of national tours, including the one presently playing at The Fox. The theater, by the way, looks resplendent with its holiday décor, including a row of Christmas trees perched above the entrance to the lobby.
Other Info: Sadly, the book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin seems catered to the youngest of tykes, ages 6 and younger. There’s nothing at all wrong with that, but the fact is that the best holiday stories, such as A Charlie Brown Christmas or How the Grinch Stole Christmas, are clever enough that adults and older kids enjoy them as well. This is just tedious.
A huge problem with Elf the Musical is that the beloved older elf played by Bob Newhart in the movie isn’t even included in the musical version. Instead, we have Santa Claus himself serving as narrator of Buddy’s story, which Gordon Gray does in fine fashion. Unfortunately, his stage time is relatively sparse.
Matt Kopec as Buddy is reminiscent of Martin Short, although he’s not nearly as capable a comic artist. Since the book is so banal and insipid, it’s critical that the lead actor carry off some measure of convincing us to care about Buddy’s predicament. That really doesn’t happen in this production.
There are some sparks of energy emanating from Jacqueline Grabois’ glib portrayal of Deb, a secretary in Walter Hobbs’ office. Others in the cast include Kate Hennies as the New York-weary Jovie, Matthew Alan Smith as Walter, Jane Bruce as his long-suffering wife Emily, Tyler Altomari as Buddy’s ignored stepbrother Michael, Kevin Rockower as Walter’s own boss, the glowering, greedy Mr. Greenway, and Clyde Voce as the Christmas Land manager.
The tunes by composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin are mostly forgettable, although there is a clever bit with Buddy improvising Carol of the Bells with a pair of ringers used by a donation kettle lady and some pleasant choreography created by Connor Gallagher.
Sam Scalamoni directs in a very leisurely fashion, evidenced by the 90-minute first act that takes a long time to not get very far. Christine Peters provides the festive, cartoonish set, with a colorful array of costumes courtesy of Gregg Barnes, lighting design by Paul Miller and sound design by Shannon Slaton.
Elf the Musical is long on time but short on memorable scenes and not up to the modest standard set by the movie that inspired it.
Musical: Elf the Musical
Company: Touring Company
Venue: Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Blvd.
Dates: December 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 26, 27, 28, 29
Tickets: From $25; contact 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 2.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Joan Marcus