Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 18, 2012
Elf The Musical 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. Music direction & vocal arrangements by Phil Reno. Orchestrations by Doug Besterman. 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 Josh Marquette. Starring Jordan Gelber, Leslie Kritzer, Mark Jacoby, Adam Heller, Michael Mandell, Valerie Wright, Mitchell Sink, Rory Donovan, Jason Eric Testa, with Timothy J. Alex, Catherine Brunell, Callie Carter, Andrea Chamberlain, Jay Douglas, David Hibbard, Jenny Hill, Stacey Todd Holt, Emily Hsu, Nancy Johnston, Josh Lamon, Ariel Reid, Jonathan Schwartz, Eric LaJuan Summers, Jen Taylor, Lee A. Wilkins, also starring Beth Leavel and Wayne Knight as Santa.
Aside from it being a genuine holiday miracle that Mayor Bloomberg has not yet seen fit to close down the show because of this scene, it's also surprising that the creators (librettists Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, composer Matthew Sklar, lyricist Chad Beguelin, and director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw) felt it appropriate to leave in. If sugar-coated-sugar-coated sugar was an appropriate symbol when this show made its Broadway bow in 2010, it's considerably less so now thanks to two crucial cast changes.
Jordan Gelber (Avenue Q's inaugural Brian) and singer-comedienne-extraordinaire Leslie Kritzer suffer no fools, and never let the display-window surroundings of this painfully mechanical and barely entertaining musical completely dim their lights. Both play their roles (Gelber is Buddy, Kritzer is his love interest Jovie) with smarts and edge that make it more difficult than it used to be to write off Elf as crass commercialism from a movie studio (Warner Bros.) looking to expand its brand.
Because Gelber is, shall we say, rather generous of girth, it's clear from the outset that Buddy's unwitting masquerade will not last or work for him forever. He's also unapologetically an adult, if not one that really knows how to behave. Yes, there's an innocence there, but it's not of the one-dimensional, phony kind: Gelber's Buddy is obviously aware that something is wrong, but clueless as to the solution — until two elves in the know spill the (jelly) beans to him, and his path is set. (In this way, his take resembles Will Ferrell's from the original 2003 movie.)
As he wends his way to New York and into the life of his biological father and stepmother, Walter and Emily Hobbs (Mark Jacoby and Beth Leavel, both returning from the 2010 mounting), he's more believable as someone caught between isles of man and elf. He never loses the spry step he acquired during his time in the Arctic, but in certain key scenes (most often when romancing Jovie), he's able to slow down and lose himself in the pulse of the city rather than the release of insulin — which suggests he's learning something along the way, too.
Kritzer has things a bit tougher, as Jovie is written as a garden-variety cynic who's melted by Buddy's sucrose-fueled charms. But she understands that the key to making the character work is that she's never dead inside: We see, from the instant the two meet, the spark within her that attracts him. And when, on a trip to the ice rink at Rockefeller Center, he seals the deal by unlocking her inner Christmas lover, it's the culmination of a joyous journey Kritzer has always convinced us was possible, and even something Jovie secretly desired.
When Jovie later sings "Never Fall in Love" (finishing the thought with "with an elf"), Kritzer doesn't try to fight the absurdity of the situation and instead just surrenders to its silliness. But she makes clear, through her anger at being jilted, that she knows love is worth it wherever it's found, especially when she's waited so long for it to come her way. Again, it's finding ways to make a rickety framework a solid support for more interesting theatre.
Unfortunately, similar innovations have not spread throughout the rest of the company. Leavel and Jacoby are effective in their roles, but haven't grown appreciably in them in the last two years; the same is true of Valerie Wright as Walter's spunky secretary. (Not, admittedly, that there's much for any of them to grow into.) New cast members Adam Heller, as Walter's demanding boss, and Mitchell Sink, as Walter and Emily's too-cute 12-year-old son, hit their marks buoyantly, having as great (or, let's face it, as little) an impact as the writing allows. Wayne Knight (of Seinfeld fame) has rendered Santa as a Borscht Belt Dumbledore, to curious but middling effect.
The rest of the show is similarly unremarkable, loaded with peppy numbers and too-busy choreography that evaporate as you watch them, and scenes that never sacrifice broad strokes for fine detail. The battery-powered greeting card sets (by David Rockwell) look designed to tour, while Gregg Barnes's hard-candy-colored costumes and Natasha Katz's pronounced lighting are of the generic, gotta-have-them-for-a-Christmas-show variety.
There is, however, nothing at all "by the numbers" about Gelber and Kritzer. Whatever other deficiencies Elf may have, there's enough room for play to be filled by two stage comics who know how to identify, and fill, the myriad gaps. With evenings like this, you never expect to find inventive characterizations under the tree, which makes Gelber and Kritzer all the more surprising to unwrap. If I still can't recommend Elf for people (and families) looking for a good musical, these two have at least ensured that this time around it's a much more interesting — and grown-up — show.