Michael L. Quintos
- OnStage Associate Los Angeles Critic
Upon learning that part of Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ holiday programming this season was to finally bring a national tour production of ‘ELF - THE MUSICAL’—the 2010 Broadway stage musical adaptation of the popular Will Ferrell holiday movie—to its stage, I was pretty ecstatic.
I have always adored the original 2003 film and have since enjoyed listening to the fun original Broadway cast album as part of my December song cycle (and in a fun coincidence, I even got to perform a song from the show with my choral group on this very same stage when we performed with Liza Minnelli four years ago). I even thought the special NBC TV animated adaptation of the musical was a cute holiday surprise a few years ago—cute enough to warrant me purchasing a disc copy.
Suffice it to say, I was more than prepared to enjoy a silly, sparklejollytwinklejingley holiday musical during the show’s recent OC opening night performance in Costa Mesa—a particularly needed distraction from the current mood of the nation.
To the uninitiated few, ELF chronicles the outlandish story of Buddy (here played by Sam Hartley), a human baby who crawls into Santa’s giant gift sack on one fateful Christmas Eve and accidentally gets brought back to the North Pole. Buddy, a perpetually happy guy who claims “smiling is my favorite,” is then raised among the elves but learns later as a (fully-grown) adult that he is actually a human, not an elf.
With this new discovery, Santa (a hilarious Ken Clement) informs him about his father, Walter Hobbs (Mark Epperson), a children’s book publisher in New York City. Thus begins Buddy’s quest: to leave the safety of the North Pole that’s he known all his life to seek out his long-lost dad in the big city. Remarkably, he finds him rather quickly.
But aside from fitting in in this new city, Buddy’s got lots to deal with: Upon meeting his rather Scrooge-lite father, Buddy discovers that Walter not only refuses to believe Buddy is his biological son, but that Walter is also just not a big fan of Christmas and the holidays, period. In fact, Buddy is disturbed to learn that most of New York City has lost its Christmas spirit—the very thing that powers Santa’s gravity-defying sleigh on Christmas Eve. Even Buddy’s new family, Walter’s wife Emily (Marie Lemon) and their young son Michael (Nicholas Canal) are less excited about the holidays that he’d hoped. Michael, sadly, has stopped believing in Santa altogether.
And then there’s Buddy’s crush Jovie (Mia Weinberger), an apathetic Macy’s employee Buddy meets by chance while exploring (and then accidentally getting hired at) the store’s version of the “North Pole.” Buddy has taken it upon himself to get Jovie excited about Christmas, and, well, you know, get closer to her a bit more.
For the most part, ELF—which performs at SCFTA through January 1, 2017—delivers enjoyable laughs sprinkled here and there throughout its two acts, and even offers up a non-equity cast equipped with lovely singing voices. I also enjoyed much of Connor Gallagher’s choreography, Gregg Barnes’ eye-popping, colorful costumes, and the boisterous orchestra under Michael Uselmann’s baton. But while ELF - THE MUSICAL is certainly festive and has lots of smile-inducing moments, overall, I felt the presented production felt surprisingly subdued.
It’s not a stretch to say that there’s a certain expectation with the stage version of ELF to be as over-the-top as its source material was, a now modern classic that has become a fun staple of holiday movie playlists since its release. And judging from the Broadway cast album alone—and the various clips of that original 2010 Broadway production available online—the show looks and sounds as if it would be a laugh riot. Well, perhaps it was much more in its original form.
What arrived in Costa Mesa, however, felt like it needed lots and lots more of the sugary snacks—the same kind the show’s title character is addicted to—to make the show much more high-energy—at least for much of the first act. While it had plenty of genuinely funny and heart-warming moments (courtesy of Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan’s book), many aspects of the NETworks Presentations production needed to be much more over-the-top, manic, and downright silly. Instead the show felt a bit toned down, where the title character was prevented from being as overtly child-like and innocently naive as one may have expected the character to be. From the under-caffeinated staging to its fabric-backdrop sets that were gorgeous but needed a good ironing/steaming, ELF - The Musical, in its current touring format just felt a little too safe.
Most indicative of this toned-down direction is “(Just Sing) A Christmas Song,” the title character’s musical prescription to raise Holiday spirits. Here, the song felt like a missed opportunity to be a much more joyful, celebratory musical number (why were they all just standing around singing the song instead of prancing/dancing at the Rockefeller Center skating rink?!) While the opening number and “Sparklejollytwinklejingley” were cute and appropriately festive, the rest of the numbers that followed exuded half the energy they needed/required.
Of course, that’s not to say that the show isn’t worth seeing. As toned down as it is, ELF does get resuscitated (thankfully) for a better second act, gaining some much-needed joy and mirth, even as Buddy faces heartbreak initially in its onset. The second act opener, “Nobody Cares About Santa” was a wonderful highlight (though I wish each individual soloist from the ensemble had their mic volumes turned up so we could clearly hear some of those witty lyrics crafted by Chad Beguelin to go alongside Matthew Sklar’s score). Every number that followed felt much more enjoyable and the actors look and act as if they’re allowed to have more fun with the material, too.
Surprisingly enough, my favorite aspect of the musical (other than the music) is Santa himself, who unlike in the film, is promoted to be the narrator of the story… and with plenty of witty banter and very current bon mots expressed during his stage time (he even name drops a brother who runs a Chipotle in Irvine, ha!), each appearance of Clement’s Santa is smile-inducing. Amazing voices aside, both Hartley and Weinberger should have been allowed to play up their characters’ personality extremes more—which would make it more satisfying to witness such disparate characters fall for each other. And while I liked Lemon and Canal’s respective portrayals of Walter’s wife and son, it took a while to warm up to them because it took their characters a while to warm up to Buddy and the possibilities his presence brings to their fractured family dynamic and for them to appear affected by the household patriarch’s cold(er) demeanor.
In summary, though I felt like the production needed a shot of adrenaline, ELF was essentially satisfying in that its main goals were met: did it put you in the appropriate holiday spirit? Check. Did you laugh? Check. Did you smile? Check. Did it make you want to re-watch the movie again? Check.
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Photos from the National Tour of ELF THE MUSICAL by Jeremy Daniel, courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
Performances of the Non-Equity National Tour of ELF - THE MUSICAL at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Sunday, January 1, 2017. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.