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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

A Charming Elf—The Musical
for the Holidays at 5th Avenue Theatre

Also see David's reviews of Inspecting Carol, Baby, It's Cold Outside and Scrooge

Elf
Matt Owen and Santas
It's big, it's bright, it's clever and tuneful, and it's undoubtedly going to be a big cash cow as 5th Avenue Theatre's Christmas show. It's the musical version of the very popular Will Ferrell film Elf and, like the film, a lot rides on the appeal of the actor playing Buddy, the Elf. Seattle native Matt Owen has grown up in front of 5th Avenue Theatre audience's eyes, going from a Newsboy in Gypsy to Young Patrick in Mame to Chip in On the Town, growing stronger role by role. Now as Buddy he is literally the star of the show, and the handsome, lanky and talented Owen proves easily up to the challenge, backed up by a super-strong supporting cast under the smooth and snappy direction of Eric Ankrim (whose staging of Avenue Q is still playing to sold-out houses just blocks away).

Adapted faithfully and smoothly from the 2003 film (with the rather significant omissions of the Papa Elf character and children's book writer Miles Finch) by go-to Broadway book writer Tom Meehan in collaboration with Bob (The Drowsy Chaperone) Martin, Elf tells the tale of a human child who crawls into Santa's bag one Christmas Eve and is raised as an elf at the North Pole. Despite his elfin charms, the boy named Buddy grows tall and lanky, and not too adept at toy-making skills. When he learns he is human, Buddy sets out to meet his birth father Walter Hobbs, who lost his wife and is remarried to Emily, with whom he has a son named Michael. An initial meeting with his dad fails miserably, leading Buddy into a misadventure in the Santa section of a big department store, where he meets and falls for a tough on the outside charmer named Jovie.

Buddy is eventually taken in at his father's, with both Emily and Michael warming to him. Walter's attempt to bring Buddy into big business takes a seemingly disastrous turn when he destroys what is thought to be a precious children's book manuscript. Walter dismisses Buddy as an incompetent, and Buddy decides to leave. Also in the dog house with Jovie, Buddy's fortunes seemingly couldn't be worse, but then Emily and Michael witness Santa's sleigh whisking to a crash landing in Central Park. It remains up to Buddy, Jovie and the Hobbses to help renew Manhattan's belief in Christmas, and for Santa's sleigh to become air bound once more. Anyone thinking this story doesn't have a happy ending has never seen Miracle on 34th Street, It's A Wonderful Life, or any version of A Christmas Carol.

The score is by composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin, the team behind the stage score to another comedy film adaptation, The Wedding Singer which tried out at the 5th prior to a middling Broadway run. Elf is an altogether greater achievement by this young team, with Sklar providing catchy, charming melodies to Beguelin's droll and witty lyrics. I particularly like Jovie's comic lament "Never Fall in Love (with an Elf)," the rousing second-act curtain raiser "Nobody Cares About Santa Claus," and "A Christmas Song," which might stand a chance of becoming a standard Christmas song, if pop artists would record Broadway tunes again.

Matt Owen's take on Buddy is notably goofy, but down a few notches from Ferrell's (to the good, considering that actor's polarizing responses from audiences), and he is a wonderful and eager to please physical comedian in his own right, as well as a triple threat song and dance man. As Jovie, Kendra Kassebaum charmingly conveys the transformation of a hardened New Yorker to a renewed believer, and her voice is always a delight to hear. As Buddy's dad Walter, Allen Fitzpatrick also makes his journey from cynic to softie with great expertise, and you just wish he had a solo song of his own to display his potent Broadway baritone. Kim Huber twinkles with warm charm as Emily, and Noah Barr (alternating with Grayson Smith) is rambunctiously hilarious as Michael. The featured roles and ensemble are packed with talented folk, including a deliciously daffy Jessica Skerritt as office cutie Deb; Nick DeSantis, hilariously unctuous as Walter's boss Mr. Greenway; Seán G. Griffin, wry and adorable as Santa (who serves as narrator); and favorite Seattle talents Richard Gray, Cynthia Jones, Greg Allen, Christian Duhamel and Taryn Darr (especially fun as a self-centered TV news reporter) heading up a rock-solid ensemble.

Choreographer Denis Jones captures the panache of old-style Broadway dance masters such as Michael Kidd and Peter Gennaro in the big numbers, and his wink at "Cool" from West Side Story in the "Nobody Cares About Santa Claus" number is a real hoot. Music director Andy Grobengieser gets first-rate vocals from his cast, and a velvet smooth sound from his orchestra. A big hand also to Tony Smolenski IV's sharp, clean sound design. Matthew Smucker's scenic design is a magical whirl of classic Christmas images framing the actors, with Tom Sturge on hand for another top-drawer lighting design, and winter wonderland costumes by David C. Woolard.

Truly entertainment for the whole family, Elf—The Musical is the must see of this season's crop of holiday entertainments, as long as you haven't lost your belief in Christmas (and perhaps, just the ticket for someone trying to restore theirs).

Elf—The Musical runs through December 31 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Avenue, downtown Seattle. For tickets and more information go to www.5thavenue.org.


Photo: Mark Kitaoka



- David Edward Hughes



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