News Column

So-so jolly Musical 'Elf' big on cheer, but falls short of film

November 29, 2013


After two seasonal stints on Broadway and a national tour last year, "Elf The Musical" is finally making its Chicago debut at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.

This 2010 musical joins with a slew of other Christmas-timed musicals based upon much-loved pre-existing film or TV properties like "A Christmas Story The Musical," "Irving Berlin's White Christmas" and "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" Many have made a mint on Broadway and at regional box offices despite the limited seasonal production window, so it was only a matter of time before the hit 2003 film "Elf" starring Will Ferrell was targeted for Broadway.

But like many screen-to-stage shows created with recognizable titles, "Elf The Musical" has an inescapable manufactured feel about it. This is particularly disappointing considering the fine writing pedigree of the creators, and how much of the film's humor is dissipated in the transition to the stage.

"Elf The Musical" revolves around Buddy (Will Blum), a human raised as an elf at the North Pole when he mistakenly found his way into Santa Claus' sleigh as an orphaned baby. Now a grown man in his late 20s, Buddy towers over his fellow elves and can't keep up with their speedy toy-making skills.

So when Santa (Ken Clement) reveals that Buddy is actually a human with a father who doesn't know he exists, the overjoyed elf journeys to New York City with the hope of a happy family reunion.

Things don't go as expected, especially since Buddy's father, Walter Hobbs (Larry Cahn), turns out to be a workaholic children's book publisher with no time for his wife, Emily (Julia Louise Hosack), or his 12-year-old son, Michael (Noah Marlowe).

Much of the film's humor had to do with Buddy's fish-out-of- water scenario of a sugar-loving, childlike man trying to spread Christmas cheer to jaded New Yorkers. The film also had the benefit of visual gags to show just how much Ferrell as Buddy towered over his fellow elves and how his green felt Christmastown get-up looked so out of place in modern-day New York.

But in a musical where anybody can break into song -- including Walter's zany gossip-loving secretary, Deb (Lanene Charters), and the exacting Macy's Store Manager (Kevin Morrow) -- Buddy's cheerful singing outbursts aren't as bizarre as they could be. The flat, storybook look to Christine Peters' sets may fit with the framing device of Santa Claus narrating the story from a pop-up book, but they also lessen the impact of Buddy being out of place in the real world.

The device of putting shoes on the choristers' knees to make them look like short elves isn't developed enough as a visual gag (the treatment of Lord Farquaard in "Shrek The Musical" was better), and it loses some charm in the finale when the elves do a tap number by choreographer Connor Gallagher to what is obviously a prerecorded percussive track.

Tony Award-winning book writers Thomas Meehan ("Annie") and Bob Martin ("The Drowsy Chaperone") only do journeyman work with their adaptation of David Berrenbaum's original "Elf" screenplay, sometimes even name-dropping product placements like Starbucks, Taco Bell and iPads for cheap humor.

More successful is the fun score by composer Matthew Skylar and lyricist Chad Beguelin ("The Wedding Singer"), especially with Buddy's enthusiastic production number "Sparklejollytwinklejingley" and his lovely "A Christmas Song" duet with his pessimistic love interest, Jovie (a wonderfully deadpan Lindsay Nicole Chambers).

The entire cast under Sam Scalamoni's direction is generally strong and energetic, led by Will Blum as the overenthusiastic Buddy. True, a few of Blum's line deliveries on opening night didn't garner large laughs like they could have, but he's a big enough personality to carry along the show with its season-appropriate messages of redemption, forgiveness and the importance of making time to be with your loved ones.

While "Elf The Musical" is perfectly acceptable holiday entertainment that should appeal to a wide array of ages, it doesn't live up to the past works of its esteemed creators. Like egg nog and fruitcake, "Elf The Musical" should be welcome for the season, but is better left untouched the rest of the year.

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