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A CurtainUp Review

Why don't you just say it? I'm the worst toy maker in the whole wide world. I'm a Cotton- Headed-Ninny-Muggins. — Buddy
Sebastian Arcelus (Photo: Joan Marcus )
When the film Elf opened for the holiday season back in 2003, it attracted considerable attention by having Saturday Night Live comedian Will Ferrell as a thirty-year-old human named Buddy who has been raised since infancy in the care of Santa Claus — and believing he is an elf, if an overgrown one. There is an amusing scene early in this musical version in which six foot tall Buddy (Sebastian Arcelus) wakes up in a bed that he obviously outgrew about 25 years earlier and in a room designed in miniature. As the scene shifts to the toy workshop in the North Pole, also in miniature, we see that Buddy towers over the elves.

  Thanks to designer Gregg Barnes's appropriately whimsical costumes, we cannot see (but can rightly guess) that those playing the elves are dancing on their knees. This is a cute and clever beginning for a show in which cuteness and cleverness arrive with diminishing returns. This is largely attributable to disappointing efforts by Casey Nicholaw who received a Tony for his work on The Drowsy Chaperone. Nicholaw must take the blame for both the general lack of spark in the choreography and in the staging that is apt to make many an adult just a little drowsy.

  There is, however, no diminishment of our appreciation for the very pretty story-book evoking settings that David Rockwell has designed and that incorporate some lovely projections and other visual treats. It is his contribution that remains in my mind the most laudable aspect of this show. The ice-skating rink and Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, the exterior of Tavern on the Green, and the interior of a Chinese restaurant where seven working Santas are enjoying a dinner break offer diverting moments.

  Even if you managed to avoid the film that was primarily aimed at young children and their parents, you have undoubtedly heard that it achieved enormous commercial success as well as cult status. Those cultists and others are now being offered a musical stage adaptation with a new book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, with a score by Matthew Sklar (music) and Chad Beguelin (lyrics). Whether or not there is any good reason to encourage it, Elf, the musical, will presumably join the roster of other perennial holiday shows.

  Last heard from as the collaborators on the Broadway musical The Wedding Singer, Sklar and Beguelin have sufficiently plumped up the simple story with songs that essentially come and go pleasantly enough without threatening the progress of musical theatre composition. Meehan, the winner of three Tony Awards (Hairspray, The Producers, Annie) and Martin, who won the Tony for writing the endearing book for The Drowsy Chaperone, may have used the original screenplay by David Berenbaum as a jumping off point. Too bad, this collaboration doesn't reflect the best or most imaginative efforts of either writer.

  I would imagine that we can credit Meehan for Buddy's remark, "I'm an orphan just like Annie." With his red hair, employing a plethora of antic movements, goofy facial expressions and an unremarkable voice, Arcelus, conjures up memories of a young Danny Kaye. Read this as a compliment or not, but Arcelus delivers the kind of obligatory gregarious performance that one may expect from the displaced orphan who had, in his infancy, crawled into Santa's toy sack and been whisked back to the North Pole. In the story, which I presume does not stray very far from the original, Buddy feels compelled to go back to New York to find his biological father and connect with humans after he realizes that he has no talent for making toys.

  While still dressed in traditional elf garb and exuding his cheery demeanor, Buddy alarms the office workers in the children's publishing firm in the Empire State Building where his father Walter Hobbs (Mark Jacoby) is a rather dour and disagreeable executive. Failing to convince or connect with his father, who is on Santa's "naughty list," the homeless Buddy does ingratiate himself with his stepmother Emily (Beth Leavel) and his young stepbrother Michael (Matthew Gumley) and accepts their invitation to live with them. Leavel, who received a Tony Award for her title role in The Drowsy Chaperone, acquits herself professionally without having more than some modest opportunities to make something special of her role. She and a very talented and young Gumley (a member of the original cast of The Addams Family,) share two reasonably enjoyable numbers: "I'll Believe in You" and "There is a Santa Claus."

  Much of the action follows Buddy's interaction with the employees at Macy's as they decorate the North Pole department in preparation for the Christmas holidays. Valerie Wright, another redhead and a dynamic and vivacious performer, stands out a in the role of Deb, Mr. Hobb's secretary. She illuminates the stage in a the way that makes us wish that she was the star. You may get the feeling that Wright is doing for this show what Barbra Streisand did in her Broadway debut in 1962 in the support role of Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It For You Wholesale.

  As Buddy attempts to cheer up those he meets who don't reflect the Christmas spirit, he also falls in love with Jovie (Amy Spang er), a very pretty employee who is relegated to displaying less cheer and optimism than anyone with her defining song "Never Fall in Love." That she finally allows herself to be charmed by Buddy's unwavering attention ("You be less elfy and I'll be less bitchy") won't come as a surprise.

  Despite being book-ended by the jovial appearance of a rather untraditionally characterized Santa Claus (George Wendt) this is a musical that is astonishing in the way it otherwise revels in the ordinary and displays with glee what is generally known in professional circles as pedestrian.

  Book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin
  Music by Matthew Sklar and Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
  Direction and Choreography ed by Casey Nicholaw

  Cast: George Wendt (Santa), Nancy Johnston (Mrs. Claus), Sabastian Arcelus (Buddy), Noah Weisberg (Charlie), Asmeret Ghebremichael (Shawanda), Mark Jacoby (Walter Hobbs), Noah Weisberg (Sam), Matt Loeher(Matthews), Blake Hammond (Chadwick), Beth Leavel (Emily), Matthew Gumley (Michael), Valerie Wright (Deb), Michael Mandell (Macy's Manager), Amy Spanger (Jovie), Timothy J. Alex (Fake Santa), Lee Wilkins, Noah Weisberg (Policemen), Michael McCormick (Mr. Greenway), Emily Hsu (Charlotte Dennon)
  Scenic Design: David Rockwell
  Costume Design: Gregg Barnes
  Lighting Design: Natasha Katz
  Sound Design: Peter Hylenski
  Orchestra: Conductor, Phil Reno; Associate Conductor, Mat Eisenstein; Concert Master: Rick Dolan.
Musicians--Violin: Belinda Whitney; Cello: Sarah Hewitt-Roth; Bass: Michael Kuennen; Woodwinds: Tom Murray, Rick Heckman. Mark Thrasher; Trumpets: Craig Johnson, Scott Harrell; Trombones: Alan Ferber, Jeff Nelson; Percussion: Charles Descarfino; Drums: Perry Cavari; Keyboards: Mat Eisenstein, Mark C. Mitchell. Phil Reno
Music Coordinator: John Miller
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes including intermission
  Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street.
  (212) 239 - 6200
  Tickets ($39.00 - $137.00)
  Previews began 11/02/10
  Opened 11/14/10
  Ends 01/02/11
  Review by Simon Saltzman based on evening performance 1l/13/10
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Overture /The Orchestra
  • Christmastown /Santa. Buddy & Company
  • World's Greatest Dad /Buddy
  • In the Way /Deb, Walter, Emily, Michael & Company
  • Sparklejollytwinklejingley /Buddy, Store Manager & Company
  • I'll Believe in You /Michael & Emily
  • In the Way (Reprise) /Emily & Walter
  • Just Like Him /Buddy, Deb & Company
  • A Christmas Song /Buddy, Jovie & Company
  • I'll Believe in You (Reprise) /Buddy & Company
Act Two
  • Nobody Cares About Santa/ Fake Santas, Store Manager & Buddy
  • Never Fall in Love/Jovie
  • There Is a Santa Claus/ Michael & Emily
  • The Story of Buddy the Elf/ Buddy, Michael, Walter, Greenway, Emily, Deb & Company
  • Nobody Cares About Santa (Reprise)/ Santa
  • A Christmas Song (Reprise)/Jovie, Buddy, Emily, Michael, Walter & Company
  • Finale/ Company
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