Review: 'Elf the Musical' offers sweet holiday fun
“Elf the Musical” has all the color and sweetness of a stack of Christmas cookies, easily digested and remembered fondly, but not sticking with you very long.
The music is suitably sparkly and sung with great enthusiasm. Indeed, the amplification seemed a bit unnecessary for some of the ensemble scenes. But you probably won't leave the theater humming any of the less-than-memorable tunes.
The musical, which is playing at the Benedum Center through Dec. 1 as a presentation of PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh, follows the general outline of the 2003 movie it is based on, but focuses less on the oddness of Buddy the Elf (played to perfection by Will Ferrell in the movie) and more on the lost spirit of Christmas and flagging belief in Santa Claus, and on the romance between Buddy and fellow Macy's store elf Jovie.
Santa, who has some of the funniest lines in the show, gets things started as he wonders why he just can't relax a little after a hard night of delivering presents. But instead, he'll tell a story, but only after, in a clever reminder to the audience, he turns off his cell phone so we won't be interrupted.
For those who haven't seen the movie, Buddy the Elf isn't really an elf. As an orphaned baby, he stowed away in Santa's bag years ago and, once discovered at the North Pole, was raised by elves. He's not the best toy-maker and his size causes some problems, but he's never figured out he's a human until one of the elves lets it slip.
Santa (there's no Papa Elf in this version) tells Buddy that his mother died when he was very young, but his father, who never knew about Buddy, lives in New York City and works at the Empire State Building. He's not a bad guy, Santa says, but he's on the (gasp) “naughty list.”
Once in New York, Buddy, dressed in green-striped tights and elf shoes, finds his Scrooge-like dad Walter Hobbs, who quickly has him thrown out his office. He ends up at the fake North Pole in Macy's, where he meets Jovie and adds Christmas cheer before causing mayhem when he unmasks the fake Santa. He's dropped by police at Walter's door, where he quickly makes friends with Walter's wife, Emily, and young son Michael.
Buddy goes about spreading cheer throughout New York and finally breaking through to his dad, before rescuing Santa after his sled, powered by Christmas spirit, crashes in Central Park. Buddy reads to the assembled crowd all their wishes from Santa's list, now conveniently on an iPad, to help restore their belief and power Santa on his way.
Buddy is played with sweetness and energy by Matt Kopec, although he doesn't elicit the laugh-out-loud humor of the movie. His voice is clear and strong both talking and singing. The performance includes several over-the-top musical numbers (subtlety is not the key here), which the cast handled easily. The only weak singing voice belonged to Matthew Alan Smith — Buddy's dad, Walter — who seemed to be struggling a bit at the opening-night performance.
Tyler Altomari, who played little brother Michael, had an impressive voice for one so young. The women playing the three key female roles — Jane Bruce as Emily, Kate Hennies as Jovie and Jacqueline Grabois at Walter's secretary, Deb — all could reach the rafters with their powerful voices.
The choreography was really the best part of the show. There were multiple people moving almost all the time. The big ensemble numbers, including “Christmastown,” “In the Way” and “A Christmas Song,” involved elaborate dances, moving set pieces and props flying through the air (and I didn't see even one get dropped).
The sets, which changed frequently, also were impressive. The scenes moved from Santa's workshop, to outside the Empire State Building, to inside Macy's North Pole, to Walter's office and the Hobbs' apartment, and to Central Park, with a flying Santa's sled. There's even a skateable ice rink (with rollerblades) at Rockefeller Center.
Probably the funniest number was “Nobody Cares About Santa,” featuring Buddy and several store Santas consoling themselves at a Chinese restaurant. The Santas move around like the Jets from “West Side Story,” bemoaning their falling popularity. As Buddy sings, “I never knew such disrespect could ever have existed. No wonder this whole city has been naughty-listed.”
The oddest number involved the dancing “elves” — full-sized adults with elf shoes on their knees — at the end of the show. It's briefly funny, but then uncomfortable to watch them move around on their knees.
If you're looking for a harmless night of fun to get you in the holiday spirit, then “Elf the Musical” fits the bill. But if you want belly laughs, stick to the movie.
Susan Jones is assistant features editor for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7919 or firstname.lastname@example.org.