I'm not one of these people who automatically dismisses something just because it's part of a trend. Like, for instance, movie-to-musical adaptations. I like to think that I approach each new show with an open mind, regardless of how seemingly cynical or commercial the impetus behind the show might be.
Plus, when I heard that Elf - The Musical was in the works, it seemed like a pretty good idea to me. I genuinely enjoyed the 2003 Will Ferrell film "Elf," although it did get a bit too special-effects-dependent toward the denouement. So I was a bit crestfallen last week when the show opened to such divided reviews, especially since I wasn't scheduled to see the show until three days after it opened.
As so often happens when a show gets mixed reviews, I entered the show with a vague sense of apprehension, but was quite pleasantly surprised to find myself genuinely enjoying the show. Yes, it seemed like a bit of a rush job, and no, it's not exactly one for the ages. But Elf is a sweet and diverting show with a strong cast and a tuneful score, with plenty of fun holiday adventures along the way.
The score to Elf has music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Chad Beguelin, the writing pair responsible for the score to the underrated show The Wedding Singer. It's funny, but it wasn't until the second act of Elf that I realized how tuneful and effective the score for the show really is. Ironically, this came during "Nobody Cares About Santa," which actually doesn't really work as a song all that well. But it did serve to emphasize how pleasant and serviceable the rest of the score is. Even the lamest of numbers in The Wedding Singer is at least tuneful, and the same can be said for the songs for Elf. Perhaps the best of the lot is "The Story of Buddy the Elf," a terrific sequence in which the characters pitch Buddy's unlikely story as a children's book. It's a fun number, and more than adequately serves its purpose in its "11'o clock" position.
Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw has emerged in recent seasons as someone to watch, with his terrific sense for dressing a stage, and appealing but not showy dance steps. But I get the feeling that Nicholaw didn't really have enough time for his particular brand of stage magic to reach full potency on Elf. His stage business for the annoyingly titled "Sparklejollytwinklejingly" was busy and uninspired. In this number, Buddy the elf (Sebastian Arcelus) leads a bunch of Macy's employees (product-placement alert!) in decorating the store for the holiday season. In another sequence, Buddy takes Jovie (Amy Spanger), his incipient girlfriend, skating at Rockefeller Center. Cue: ice rink! Great idea, but the rink itself is too small for the many people meant to occupy it, and the effect is more awkward than charming.
I get the sense that these things could have been worked out if the production timeline had been more accommodating. Again, the show feels like something that they rushed to finish for the holidays, particularly the amusing but spotty book by Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan. Having seen the movie, I could tell which parts of the show had been compressed significantly to accommodate the musical numbers, and the effect is often rushed and diluted.
Thankfully, there's a cast-full of Broadway pros in residence to fill in the storytelling potholes, particularly the disarming Sebastian Arcelus in the central role of Buddy. Also on-hand are stalwarts Beth Leavel and Mark Jacoby as Buddy's "human" parents, who imbue their somewhat two-dimensional roles with a great deal of humor and heart.
So, no, Elf isn't going to win any prizes, or change the direction of musical theater. But it's engaging and sweet, and certainly an appealing option for parents looking for something to entertain their vacationing brood over the holidays. It certainly had me grinning, particularly during the curtain call, during which the entire cast dons elf suits and tap shoes for a rousing finale. Cheesy? Perhaps. But I'm not ashamed to admit that the cast had me tapping right along with them.
NOTE: New Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations require bloggers to disclose when they accept anything of material value related to their blog posts. I received complimentary press tickets to this performance of Elf.