Get ready to fall in love with Elf, both 6’2” Buddy and the Broadway adaptation of the Will Ferrell holiday gem. Elf The Musical is spending a week at the Segerstrom Center For The Arts and some despite stiff competition from White Christmas and The Grinch, it now takes first place as this reviewer’s heart as best holiday musical ever.
Like the 2003 movie smash on which it is based, 2010’s Elf The Musical opens at the North Pole, where Santa (Ken Clement) has raised the now 30-year-old Buddy (Sam Hartley) to be so blissfully clueless to his human nature that he is “Happy All The Time.” (“Making toys is so fantastic that I shake until I’m spastic.”)
Then one fateful day, a fellow elf’s slip of the tongue reveals the truth.
Buddy is the love child of the now deceased Susan Wells and the still alive-and-kicking children’s book publisher Walter Hobbs (Mark Epperson), whose life-consuing job leaves wife Emily (Susan Lemon) and 12-year-old son Michael (Nicholas Canan) quite the opposite of happy.
At Santa’s suggestion, Buddy heads south to Manhattan in full Elf regalia, showing up unannounced and unwelcome at Dad’s Empire State Building office before ending up in Macy’s toy department, whose staff Buddy finds woefully apathetic, that is until he convinces them that the place needs a “sparklejollytwinklejingley” makeover.
While there, Buddy meets (and falls quickly head over heels for) cute blonde store employee Jovie (Mia Weinberger), a gal who could give the Grinch a lesson in bad attitude but whom Buddy (being Buddy) finds positively irresistible.
Considerably more resistible is Macy’s Santa, whose fake beard and smelly breath so outrage our “elfin” hero that he must be police-escorted out of the building and over to Walter’s deluxe apartment in the sky, where he soon charms both stepmom and half-bro if not dear old dad.
When Buddy throws an unintentional wrench in Walter’s latest attempt to come up with a Christmas bestseller, only a Christmas miracle can give our towering hero the happy ending he so richly deserves.
Tony-winning book writers Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray) make sure that “family-friendly” doesn’t mean “adult-unfriendly,” packing their humor-and-heart-filled book with one-liners bound to elicit grown-up chuckles while flying high over kiddies’ heads.
Matthew Sklar’s melodies are every bit as catchy as those that scored him a Tony nomination for The Wedding Singer, and lyrics don’t get any cleverer than fellow Wedding Singer Tony nominee Chad Beguelin’s. (Take this oy vey of a winner from “Happy All The Time,” added to the 2012 Broadway revival: “When we sing till we are bluish, Santa wishes he were Jewish.”)
Triple-threat Hartley proves the perfect successor to both the movie’s Ferrell and original Broadway Buddy Sebastian Arcelus. Despite being only a few years out of University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Hartley has the stage presence of a seasoned pro, splendiferous pipes, and enough good-natured crowd-pleasing charm to win over even the grumpiest grouch.
Supporting performances could not be more sparkling under Sam Scalamoni’s effervescent direction, beginning with petite ball-of-fire Weinberger, who not only wins Buddy’s and our hearts but belts “Never Fall In Love With An Elf” like a bona fide New York cabaret star.
Epperson’s work-harried Walter, Lemon’s earth-mother Emily, Canal’s spunky Michael, and Clement’s santastic St. Nick are winners too as are Logan Sejas (boy), Joel Stigliano (Mr. Greenway), Audra Qualley (Deb), and Ryan Gregory Thurman (Store Manager) in colorfully rendered featured roles.
Connor Gallagher choreographs one show-stopping dance number after another (including an opening sequence performed entirely on knees) that match Broadway’s best, particularly as executed by a triple-threat ensemble of recent college grads with major song-and-dance chops: Mike Baskowski, Danielle Burdick, Will Geoghegan, Spencer Glass, Shane Hurst, Erin Kei, Greta Kleckner, Caitlin Lester-Sams, Katie Lombardo, Elliot Peterson, Sarah Shelton, and Joseph Tudor. Dance captain Amanda Grace Holt and assistant dance captain Taylor Simon are poised to swing in as needed.
Side note: The Elf team deserve a rainbow-flag salute for a pair of subtle reminders that not all couples are boy-girl.
NETworks Presentations, LLC gives this National Tour a Technicolorrific production design sure to provoke plenty of audience oohs and aahs, from scenic designer Christine Peters’ storybook set to Gregg Barnes’s imaginative bevy of elf-and-people-wear to Paul Miller’s vibrant lighting to Shannon Slaton’s crystal-clear sound design to Bernie Ardia’s fabulous hair-and-wig styling.
Music director Nate Patten insures splendid vocals backed by conductor Michael Uselmann and Elf The Musical’s terrific eight-piece pit orchestra.
Associate director Benjamin Shaw and associate choreographer Nancy Renee Braun deserve kudos for helping to bring Scalamoni’s and Gallagher’s visions to life for 2016.
Laura Dieli is production manager, Lauren Cavanaugh is production stage manager, and Christopher Ketner is company manager.
Segerstrom Center For The Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
December 20, 2106
Photos: Jeremy Daniel