Elf is based on the 2003 Will Ferrell movie about Buddy, a kind-hearted (but rather empty-headed) man-child raised at the North Pole by Santa and his elves, who finds out, at the age of 30, that he's not really an elf after all. Encouraged by Santa, Buddy heads off to New York City to find his real family, only to find that the city's bustle is overwhelming and his father is a grump who cares more about making money than making his family happy. Can Buddy teach him the real meaning of Christmas?
The songs by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin provide most of the Christmas spirit here, even if their effort to make nearly every song comment on the season does seem like overkill at times. (Even White Christmas didn't have as many Christmas songs as this show.) Sklar's music is melodic and bouncy, perfect for the season. Beguelin's lyrics are a bit more problematic; at their best they're funny and inventive, but at their worst they strain to be cute. (The songs that are filled with desperate rhymes for "elf" are the weakest; one groaner actually rhymes "elf" with "Philadelph-ia.") The book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin does a nice job of compressing David Berenbaum's movie script while adding some clever, winking asides that let us know they're not taking their own story too seriously. But the book has some dull stretches, plus a few elements retained from the movie that don't make sense out of context, such as the running gag where Buddy makes up a song off the top of his head only to have it be disastrously bad. (That doesn't work in a show filled with actual good songs, seemingly made up by Buddy too.)
Director/choreographer Marc Robin's production does its best to dazzle and generally succeeds. It's stocked with some peppy tap dance numbers, and it bursts with color, thanks to Colleen Grady's costumes and Robert Andrew Kovach's sets. Christopher Sutton, last seen on the Walnut's stage as another Buddy (Buddy Holly), is just as winning this time around. He's supported by a fine supporting cast, including Charles Pistone as the gruff father and Bill Van Horn in a hilarious turn as Santa (Van Horn even works in some jokes about the Eagles). The standoutsboth in terms of the warmth they project and their sterling singing voicesare Kristine Fraelich as Pistone's long-suffering wife and J.D. Triolo as her young son (Triolo alternates with Tyler Hentz in the role). Only Kate Fahrner, as Buddy's newfound girlfriend Jovie, disappoints; Jovie is supposed to be shy, but Fahrner is so subdued and colorless in the role that she practically disappears before our eyes (and you won't buy her romance with Buddy for an instant).
But flaws like that will do little to dampen your enjoyment of Elf. It may not be a classic, but it's a very cute show that will make your holiday season a little brighter.
Elf runs through January 5, 2014, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $10 – $95, with premium tickets available for $175, and are available online at www.WalnutStreetTheatre.org or by phone (800) 982-2787.