nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 17, 2010
Elf is the dandiest holiday gift that Broadway has given its customers in many a year. What I love about this show is that it combines the fun stuff we're supposed to be feeling this time of year—joy, happiness, merriment—with a sweet and earnest (but not sentimental or sappy) sense of fellowship and good cheer. It's ideal entertainment for just about all ages, I'd say...and even if you think you're too cool or hip or sophisticated to see a traditional holiday musical of this ilk, do yourself a favor and see Elf anyway, and let its warmth roll over you and win you over. Because, hey, it's Christmas.
Elf is based on a popular movie from 2003 (which I, true to form, have never seen). It tells the story of Buddy, a very tall member of Santa's staff who discovers, much to his surprise, that he is in fact a human. (It seems that Buddy crawled into Santa's bag when he was a tiny baby and was inadvertently brought to the North Pole by Mr. Claus, where he was raised by the elves.) Once Buddy finds out that he has a dad named Walter Hobbs living in New York City, he determines to meet his father and join his human family. Walter is an executive in children's publishing, but he's Scroogishly lost sight of what's really important in his life (such as being close to his family and honoring the true spirit of Christmas); he is, in fact, on Santa's naughty list. Count on Buddy to change all that, with his naive but endearing goodness saving not only his own family but the whole Christmas holiday itself.
Elf's creators have done a bang-up job turning this tale into an exceedingly well-crafted traditional musical comedy. Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin's book is economical and wisely short on irony and long on sincerity; even though the characters are fantastical and two-dimensional, they're easy to understand and love. The score by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin is tuneful and fun; they've provided a big dance number for the center of Act One called "Sprinklejollytwinklejingley" which is sung by the staff of the Santa Workshop at Macy's (where Buddy goes to work, naturally enough, after he arrives in the Big Apple), and a bona fide show-stopper for Act Two called "The Story of Buddy the Elf," a song that gives all of Buddy's family and friends a thrilling excuse to a make a kickline even as it pushes the plot forward. There's also a catchy theme song called "A Christmas Song" that is heard more than once during the show, and a delightful opener for the second act called "Nobody Cares About Santa" which is sung by a fleet of tired store/street Santas in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve.
Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw never lets the pace flag for a moment, and although I wouldn't have minded a bit more (and a bit more inventive) dancing, the show's energy and entertainment quotients are high throughout. The design is terrific, especially David Rockwell's fluid set design, which uses bright colors and simple shapes to create pretty stage pictures, incorporating the endlessly original projections of Zachary Borovay. Gregg Barnes's costumes and Natasha Katz's lighting also contribute neatly to the world of this sunny show.
As for the cast, well, Elf is beautifully served by its 16-member ensemble and its nine principals, every one of whom seems to be having a ball on stage and delivers a full-hearted and skillful performance. Sebastian Arcelus is outstanding as Buddy the Elf, never playing his simplicity and innocence as anything but just that, and dazzling with his expert singing and dancing. Amy Spanger is fine as Buddy's love interest, Jovie, making the required transition from sourpuss to angel. Broadway pros Mark Jacoby and Beth Leavel are excellent as Buddy's dad and stepmother, and Matthew Gumley is natural and likeable (and possessed of a good, strong singing voice) as Buddy's young half-brother Michael. Valerie Wright is a breath of fresh air every time she's on stage as Walter's secretary, Deb (and she enlivens several dance numbers with her high kicking); ditto Michael Mandell as Buddy's boss at Macy's, who, with Arcelus, leads the company in "Sprinklejollytwinklejingley." Oh, and George Wendt—Norm from Cheers—makes a splendid Santa.
If you're looking for a Broadway show that the entire family can really have a blast at, you can't do better than Elf this year. And if you're hungry for the kind of musical they used to produce on Broadway, back in the day when Hello, Dolly! and Mame ruled the roost, Elf needs to be on your theatre list; it's a throwback to those golden days, in the very best of ways. I actually hope the producers extend Elf beyond the holiday season, because it's just the kind of uplifting yet light-hearted entertainment that we need more of in this endless recession we're mired in. As you now know, I had a great time at Elf, and I hope that you will, too.