Tuesday, November 23, 2010

REVIEW: Elf: The Musical

Review of the November 20 matinee performance. At the Al Hirscfeld Theatre on Broadway, New York City. 2 hours, 20 minutes, with intermission. Starring Sebastian Arcelus, Mark Jacoby, Amy Spanger, Matthew Gumley, George Wendt, Valerie Wright and Beth Leavel. Book by Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan, music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics Chad Beguelin. Direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw.

Grade: A

In the interest of full disclosure (and to recap for those of you who don't read my blog regularly): I am not a Will Ferrell fan at all; I have never seen the film version of the musical I am reviewing; and I generally dislike "holiday" shows because they tend to be sappy, over-romanticized, and cheesy in the most obnoxious way.  And so, Elf: The Musical had a certain advantage over other movie-turned-stage musical shows in that I was completely fresh to the property.  I cannot speak to how it compares; I can only speak to how it impressed me.  On the other hand, the show also had a bit of a disadvantage going in, because, fair or not, I am generally unimpressed with shows of this type.  Well, let your eye wander up the screen and note my "grade".  Clearly, this show struck a positive chord with me after all.  And the reasons are quite clear.

Sebastian Arcelus as Buddy the Elf

I have long been a fan of the writing team - Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin since I saw Hairspray and The Drowsy Chaperone, respectively.  And to be perfectly honest, I went in expecting less, as Meehan's book for Annie is exactly the kind of treacly sweet thing I dislike, and I HATED The Producers.  I think Mr. Martin, endlessly creative, smooth with the "wink and nudge" and endlessly smart with Chaperone was the perfect balance in a writing partner.  And, I am sure that some credit must go to the screen writers of the film for no screen to stage translation goes on without borrowing scenes and plot order.  Regardless, the book goes a long, long way toward making this a stage musical that works.  There isn't much fluff, and the book scenes both support and blend nicely with the musical moments.  Not one scene felt prolonged and not one number felt tacked on - even the reprises.  Also, the book strikes the perfect balance between giving holiday show lovers a healthy dose of Christmas cheer and musical lovers in general plenty of story to chew on.  Perhaps the best element of all is that they have not forgotten the adults in the audience.  There are some pretty heft swear words and more than a couple double entendres to keep the over 10 set happy, not mention a nice sprinkling of reality (the food cart bits and Santa with an iPad are timely and a riot of fun).

Macy's is now ready for Santa's arrival!

Ah, but this is a musical, and the music is brand new, not a classic Christmas jingle in the bunch.  No laurels mistletoe to rest on here.  And two of my favorite new composers, Matthew Sklar (music) and Chad Beguelin (lyrics) have done a tremendous job (with kudos to Doug Besterman's lush orchestrations) marrying the requisite holiday-themed tunes, complete with jingle bell underscoring ("A Christmas Song", "Christmastown"), and the needs of a Broadway musical (the torchy "Never Fall in Love", the exuberant "I need" song, "World's Greatest Dad", the character revealing showstopper dance numbers, "In the Way", "Just Like Him" and "The Story of Buddy the Elf", and my favorite, the story moving power duet, "There is a Santa Claus").  Sklar's tunes are definitely traditional Broadway in flavor, and he pays homage to some of the greats - listen closely and you can hear Bock and Harnick, Rodgers and Hart, Jerry Herman and Cole Porter.  Just as he did with 80's style pastiche in The Wedding Singer, he manages to give the flavor of the "Show Tune" with enough modern spin to keep it from being a tired retread.  The genius here is really Beguelin's lyrics, though.  He proves over and over that he can handle a range of emotions, rhyme honestly and without force, and turn a phrase with the best of them.  He's more Porter and Coward than Sondheim and La Chuisa, but this project calls for the former masters, not the modern.

The Christmastown Workshop

Technically, the show is almost aces, too.  The scenery (designed by David Rockwell) has to do a lot in a little space, and the details on the set pieces are clever and plentiful - Buddy's North Pole bedroom and the toyshop are both a visual feast, and the "reality" of New York City never lets us forget that Buddy sees it as a snow globe, so it is squeaky clean.  But you'd have to be a complete Scrooge not to be impressed with the simplicity of Tavern on the Green or the sheer size of his Rockefeller Center ice rink set.  Natasha Katz's lighting, while not ground breaking, always brightens where it needs to and offers darker contrasts when things get serious.  Similarly, you can't really say too much about the New Yorkers' street clothes - they are appropriate and the cast looks just like people you bump into while trying to look at the windows on 5th Avenue.  But you can practically squeal with childish delight at designer Gregg Barnes' fanciful and rainbow bright elf costumes.  And his menagerie of "fake Santas" is a fashion show - variations on a theme - in and of itself. 

Buddy arrives in New York City

There were only a couple of things technically that kind of felt out of place.  First, Mr. Rockwell's use of movable cubes for Macy's displays and office cubicles must have worked better on paper: yes, they allowed for movement and reconfiguration during dance numbers, but often, too often, the cast looked to be struggling to move them in unison, lock them down and complete a dance move or two.  It is an unnecessary distraction.  Also unnecessary beyond the large-scale use to create giant scenes on the upstage screens were the cartoonish (in the bad way) projections used to represent Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and some sort of blue pointy-nosed arctic fish (I'm told it plays a part in the film).  Neither were cute or particularly appealing to look at, and given their short time on the edge of the proscenium, totally unneeded.  I guess I'm quibbling, but when a show is this well put together otherwise, the little things stick out blatantly.

The cast, on the other hand, is uniformly excellent.  The truly marvelous dancers, who must be exhausted after a performance - they run, jog,  do the soft shoe, tap dance, and even dance on their knees - look to be having the time of their lives executing choreographer Casey Nicholaw's vigorous routines, all of which have that modern razzle dazzle feel to go with the classic Broadway style which matches the book, the score and his own direction.  A lot of effort was spent by each ensemble member to create interesting characters that you could understand from a brief glance or a longer look, and best of all, not an "upstager" amongst them!

Good Ol' Santa, Doritos at the ready!

TV and stage favorite George Wendt nicely book ends the show as Santa himself.  And he sets the tone right off with a very glib and very funny cell phone/candy wrapper message.  How nice to see, too, a Santa with flaws to go along with his ho-ho-ho; this Santa is a DVR hating snackaholic with a sassy wife and great deal of self-effacing humor.  Wendt plays each moment with flare and conviction.  As the Macy's store manager, Michael Mandell, is a cuddly teddy bear of energy and eager to please sincerity as he thinks he is being tested by the corporate honchos he thinks have sent Buddy the Elf to his store.  And what holiday tale would be complete without the unchanging villain?  In this case Michael McCormick, as the gruff book mogul who holds an entire company hostage with his demands on Christmas Eve, and out bah humbugs Ebenezer by a mile.  And what office comedy would be complete without the smarty pants secretary who keeps the show on the road?  Enter one of Broadway's unsung heroes, the always delightful actress/dancer Valerie Wright, whose dance steps should be welcome in Chicago any time, and whose smile would light an entire marquee.  She plays the long-suffering, but never-gonna-let-the-boss-get-the-best-of-me Deb, and she brings an extra jolt of energy to the stage every time she appears.

Mother and son contemplate what is missing this Christmas

Ultimately, what really sells this show is the complete sincerity and belief by each cast member that what they are playing is completely real.  Without that, you'd have schmaltz central (which I fear will run rampant as regional and local theatre companies snatch this property up in the coming years...I shudder to think...).  And you couldn't ask for more sincerity and conviction than the principals give to every scene, no matter how fantastic.  Tony winner Beth Leavel is an eye magnet - you want to watch her no matter what she's doing, and she is giving 100 effortless% here.  As the smart but needy wife of our antagonist, she fights like a mama bear to get her family in order, even if that means welcoming a giant elf into the fold, and you'd swear that that she really is Michael Gumley's mother, so real is her affection for the boy, and his for her (their "There is a Santa Claus" is a show stopper and instant Broadway holiday classic).  And Master Gumley is the very best kind of child actor - he is real, not cutesy to the point of vomiting, nor a cloying stage hog.  He is low key and blissfully genuine.

Father...meet son.

Mark Jacoby, contrary to the message boards and a few reviews, is anything but wooden.  He has found the perfect balance between unthinking workaholic, mean boss, and desperate ladder climber to make his gruff scenes work.  Yet he still manages to give us hints that there is a decent father and husband underneath the harsh veneer. You never doubt that his does what he is doing for his family, even as he pretty much ignores them to get things done.  And by showing us those brief "nice guy" glimpses, it makes perfect sense and is still delightful when he finally melts, stands up for himself and rejoins his thrilled family.  Amy Spanger as the hard as nails, no Christmas spirited Jovie is a delight as well.  It is hard to make someone who is disagreeable and likable at the same time, and Ms. Spanger does this beautifully.  Somehow, you can see why Buddy is smitten with her at first sight AND see why she is so miserable.  And boy, can she sing!  Her "Never Fall in Love" is belted nicely and will probably become an audition staple.  And the absolute glee on her face when she gets to ice skate in the snow (which she has never seen before) at the ice rink is priceless and made me smile BIG!

Buddy likes Jovie...

It is an unenviable task to take on a role so identified with a certain actor, and that task falls in this show to one Sebastian Arcelus.  Well, I can only report on his performance, as I've never seen Mr. Ferrell's, but I thought he was amazing. AMAZING!  From the moment he got tangled up in his elf-sized furniture, he had me in the palm of his hand.  Add that mile-wide smile, and the childlike wonder in his every expression, and he had me rooting for him from start to finish.  As I said earlier, this property could be a deadly schmaltz-fest without complete sincerity, and this role in particular could be pretty uncomfortable without it.  For example, every single time he squeals, "SNOW!" as he throws shredded paper around the room, I smiled and felt warm in that exact way I feel when my little niece runs up and gives me a hug for no reason.  And when Mr. Arcelus talks about meeting his dad and snuggling with him in bed at night, you don't for a second get a creepy feeling, as it is so touching that this man-child still wants needs his father in the most basic, loving way.  Of course, it goes without saying that he is a great singer - his "World's Greatest Dad" filled my eyes with happy tears.  But he is also a gifted actor - funny and sincere, equally at home dancing his pointy shoes off as he is doing numerous physical comedy bits.  His is a star turn.  It is too bad that this is a limited engagement.  He deserves to be seen.

A 6'3" elf?  Why not?

The same can be said for the entire production.  A rare treat of a genuine musical comedy and a holiday show combined, it only runs until January 2nd.  Get there if you can.  And if you don't believe me, here's irrefutable proof that the show works: I'd bet more than half the matinee audience I was in was small children.  Not once did I hear them talking, squirming in their seats or misbehaving.  They, with their childish glee, were as enraptured by Elf:The Musical as the man reliving some much needed childish glee who wrote this review.

(Photos by Joan Marcus)

Comments? Leave one here, Tweet me or email me!


  1. Thanks, Jeff, for getting it right. Most of the reviews I read were very disappointing. I saw this in previews and my only criticism was that the sound needed to be louder because people around me were laughing so hard I missed some of the dialogue.

    This is the best 'holiday' musical I have seen to date -- the cast is fantastic, the writing smart -- that Department Store Santa production number in the Chinese restaurant -- hilarious. So far you and Roma Torrey of NY1 are the only reviews I have seen that really 'get' this show.

    I hope this comes back every year -- I can't think of a better musical for tourists to see in December -- and even jaded New Yorkers will find themselves swept up in the fun. Last week I was in NYC and went to see it again -- on Wednesday night -- only to find out there was no performance that night. Bah humbug! I want to see it again, so hopefully I will get back to NYC before January 2nd -- the show is a panic, and thank you again, Jeff, for getting it right.

    Christine Lavin

  2. Christine,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I'm so glad you enjoyed my review. I, too, hope that ELF becomes an annual thing!

    Have a wonderful holiday!

  3. I really enjoyed Elf, too. I was smiling the whole time. Really fun and entertaining. (And I've never seen the movie.) The humor was witty and clever.

    Sebastian Arcelus was adorable as Buddy. What great charisma and stage presence. Why isn't he a musical theatre star? I'd see him in anything. And I also loved Mark Jacoby - he took a stock role and just played it to the hilt.

    I'm also a big fan of Matt Sklar and Chad Beguelin from The Wedding Singer and for the second time they've written a very fun, witty score. (I'd love to see them tackle a more serious musical someday, though! Just to see what they'd do. with it.)

    The only thing I raised my eyebrow at was the product placement. I love Apple but it was a bit much even for me! ;-)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...