Broadway Reviews

Elf

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 14, 2010

Elf Book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin. Music by Matthew Sklar. Lyrics by Chad Beguelin. Based upon the New Line Cinema film written by David Berenbaum. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Scenic design by David Rockwell. Costume design by Gregg Barnes. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Projection design by Zachary Borovay. Hair design by John Marquette. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. Music Direction & vocal arrangements by Phil Reno. Starring Sebastian Arcelus, Amy Spanger, Mark Jacoby, Michael Mandell, Michael McCormick, Valerie Wright, Matthew Gumley, Matthew Schecter. With Timothy J. Alex, Callie Carter, Cara Cooper, Lisa Gajda, Asmeret Ghebremichael, Blake Hammond, Jenny Hill, Stacey Todd Holt, Emily Hsu, Nancy Johnson, Marc Kessler, Matt Loehr, Michael James Scott, Noah Weisberg, Lee Wilkins, Kirsten Wyatt. Also starring Beth Leavel and George Wendt as Santa.
Theatre: Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running time: 2 hour 15 minutes, with one intermission
Audience: Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Schedule: Limited engagement through January 2.
The weekly performance schedule varies. Please check the Telecharge link for performance times and dates.
Ticket prices: $39 – $352
Tickets: Telecharge

Elf
Sebastian Arcelus with the cast.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The question of whether musicals should be constructed from popular films with the direct participation and financing of the studios that created them in the first place has apparently already been answered. But is it too much to ask that they be smarter, smoother, and just plain better than Elf? The Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, Inc. production playing at the Al Hirschfeld through January 2 looks intended, from start to finish, as staunch support for the 2003 holiday hit, but is empty enough to make you wish you were instead spending some quality time with Netflix.

One would think the Will Ferrell vehicle would be ideal for musicalization. A baby that Santa accidentally swept up and carried to the North Pole has been raised by elves in the workshop as one of their own. Though Buddy, as his surrogate father (played with dry yet bouncy abandon by Bob Newhart) named him, acquired his friends’ all-consuming sweet tooth, he never quite mastered their toy-making ingenuity. So when Buddy’s grown to well over six feet in height and learns the truth, of course he’s compelled to find his father, a children’s book publisher in New York, and learn about the human life he’s never known. And, oh yes, teach a bunch of disbelieving Northeasterners a little bit about Christmas along the way.

The movie may not be It’s a Wonderful Life, but its funny bone and heart were in the right place. So it’s more than a little surprising just how soulless a musical Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin (book), Matthew Sklar (music), and Chad Beguelin (lyrics) have fashioned from it. That it evinces even less artistic necessity only makes a devastating problem worse: Any substance you remove must be replaced with something (preferably something theatrical, a la The Lion King), but Elf is too busy trying to decide whether it wants to mimic or disown the film to even consider what made the original work.

Elf
Sebastian Arcelus and Amy Spanger.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Now, Buddy (Sebastian Arcelus) is completely bubbly from the very start, without the haunted sense of societal disconnection Ferrell brought to the role. (Yes, I just praised a Will Ferrell acting choice.) Eliminating Papa Elf altogether destroys the charming (and essential) dichotomy between the father Buddy has always had as opposed to the one he thinks he’s supposed to want in Walter Hobbs (played here by Mark Jacoby). Much of Papa Elf’s narrative workload has been shunted onto Santa (a good-natured George Wendt), for no good reason.

Worse, however, is that the New Yorkers are all portrayed as spiritually dead rather than overburdened by a too-busy life. The beautiful woman named Jovie (Amy Spanger), whom Buddy meets working at Macy’s during the holiday rush, is so beaten down from her entrance that nothing short of magic could convincingly fill her with holiday cheer. Walter’s wife, Emily (Beth Leavel), is a well-meaning but desperate jerk, the kind who performs DNA tests behind her husband’s back, and hardly believable as a put-upon good soul being stifled by her husband’s self-centeredness.

Everything is painted in just such sweeping, inefficient strokes. In some cases it doesn’t matter so much: Gregg Barnes’s palette-stretching costumes, Natasha Katz’s candy-colored lights, and David Rockwell’s (bargain-basement) forced-perspective scenery aren’t in and of themselves poor musical choices. Likewise, Casey Nicholaw’s direction and choreography are thoroughly undistinguished, but adequate. Dig much further, however, and you’ll find that fine details made none of the creators’ Nice lists.

Elf
Sebastian Arcelus with Mark Jacoby and George Wendt.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

It matters, for example, when an entire song concerns redecorating a department store display, yet saves 90 percent of its reveal to elicit gasps from the audience in final few seconds. It matters when a thumping complaint called “Nobody Cares About Santa” is bestowed upon a handful of ensemble members for the second-act opener, when it’s not only natural for Santa himself to sing but would also advance a crucial plot point. (Wendt does get a too-little-too-late semi-reprise later on.) It matters that Walter’s boss (Michael McCormick) screams and yells about having too many unnecessary people in the meeting about Walter’s proposed book, but doesn’t mind a dozen choristers appearing out of nowhere to help sell “The Story of Buddy the Elf.” And, really, it matters if a song lyric describes Buddy as a baritone but the role has been cast with an unapologetic tenor.

Even if Christmas-only musicals are already low-bar entertainments, other recent outings such as How the Grinch Stole Christmas and White Christmas have tried harder to expand their sources and thus inhabit the theatre than this one does, and met with clearer success. Meehan’s and Martin’s book is generically pleasant (even if Santa’s children’s-book exhibition, borrowed from the film, is treated as a limp imitation of Martin’s Man in Chair from The Drowsy Chaperone), and Sklar and Beguelin’s gingerbread-scented songs satisfy without lingering in the ear or mind a millisecond longer than they have to. The performances are much the same: professional and rich with talent, if rarely charisma. Arcelus threatens to vanish into the scenery, Leavel looks like she’s fighting a losing battle to not gnaw on it continuously, and Spanger looks like she envies its animation; only Wendt, who’s cleverly brusque and businesslike as the Big Guy, and an energetic Matthew Gumley as Walter’s son seem to be legitimately in on the fun.

Even corporate-driven musicals ought to offer more. One can understand that Warner Bros. might not want to tinker with a successful brand, but surely it doesn’t also want to stifle inspiration? Yet it’s just that quality that’s missing, preventing this show — like 9 to 5, Legally Blonde, and other similarly disposable titles from the past decade — from joining the vaunted ranks of Sweet Charity, A Little Night Music, Nine, or Grand Hotel. Film-to-theatre adaptations, such as these, that work do so because their authors see in them something that can be transformed, thus bringing greater glory to the old and new versions alike. But above all else, they convince you that their stories aren’t just worth telling, but worth telling well. That, more than anything else, is where Elf falls considerably short.


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