Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Sleeping Beauty
It's smart to have Christmas-themed musicals included in a city's Broadway series of national tours. Not only can they tap into their subscription base, but also benefit from ticket buyers wanting to experience even more holiday cheer. Last year, Cincinnati's Aronoff Center hosted Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and this season includes Elf: The Musical. This cute and fun musical takes a bit of time to find its groove, but is generally a pleasing, festive, and tuneful holiday experience.
Elf is based on the 2003 film of the same name, and played briefly on Broadway in 2010 and again in 2012. Like the movie, the musical tells the story of Buddy, an orphan who was inadvertently taken to the North Pole as a baby by Santa (after crawling into his bag) and subsequently raised as an elf. Buddy is now an adult (an oversized one in the elf world) and he learns the secret of his true identity. Buddy goes to New York City to meet his biological dad, who never knew of his existence, but is ill-prepared to adapt to the human world. Various antics, problems, and romantic entanglements ensue.
The book for the stage version is by Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers), adapted from the film screenplay by David Berenbaum. The musical basically follows the plot of the movie, though Santa narrates in this version as opposed to Papa Elf (who isn't a character here). The story drags a few times in act one, and some plot points feel very rushed, especially the burgeoning romance between Buddy and Jovie, whom Buddy meets at Macy's. The second act is considerably stronger in dialogue, story development, and songs. There are a number of effective one-liners and sight gags, though the show could use even more humor sprinkled throughout.
The score is by Matthew Sklar (music) and Chad Beguelin (lyrics), who also supplied the songs for the musical The Wedding Singer. Like the aforementioned show, Elf boasts a number of high quality songs, but has its share of pedestrian ones as well. In act one, only the opening "Happy All the Time," a peppy tune about the ever positive Buddy and the elves at the North Pole, and "A Christmas Song" are standouts. Most of the other songs get the point across, but don't make much of an impression. The score improves after intermission, with a jazzy "Nobody Cares About Santa," eager "There Is a Santa Claus," and extremely catchy "The Story of Buddy the Elf" being most praiseworthy.
Director Sam Scalamoni infuses energy into the piece and sustains an apt tone for the material and themes. However, the transitions are a bit clunky at times, and the direction, though always sufficient, rarely feels inspired. Choreographer Connor Gallagher is a CCM grad, and provides active and fun dances throughout. Samuel Bagala leads a fine nine-piece band.
Daniel Patrick Smith is excellent as Buddy, earnestly capturing the character's uber-optimistic exuberance and fish-out-of-water naivety. Mr. Smith sings wonderfully as well, and skillfully executes the physical comedy needed for the show. Daryn Harrell is a strong vocalist, and she aptly conveys the hardened exterior of a lonely New York transplant as Jovie. Mark Fishback is an effective Santa, and D. Scott Withers is solid as Walter, Buddy's career-focused father. Allison Mickelson (Emily) and Shane Treloar (Michael) impress with their two duets as Buddy's stepmom and half-brother. Arthur L. Ross is fun as the paranoid, put-upon store manager at Macy's, and Audra Qualley is delightfully sassy as secretary Deb. The ensemble does a great job playing a variety of characters ranging from elves to office workers.
Because much of the show takes place in the office of Buddy's dad, where they write and create children's books, it's smart for set creator Christine Peters to use kid's storybook illustrations as the inspiration for her scenic designs. The costumes by Gregg Barnes flow well for the dances, and are handsome and appropriate for the setting. The lighting by Paul Miller and sound by Shannon Slaton both feature some cool effects and are professionally rendered.
Elf is one of several holiday musicals currently touring, with productions of White Christmas, A Christmas Story, and How The Grinch Stole Christmas also making stops across the country this time of year. If Elf isn't quite at the quality of those shows, it isn't far behind and is a worthy option for a Christmas themed musical. This is one of two non-Equity tours of the show currently crisscrossing the nation, and a strong and talented cast makes this one an entertaining choice for local theatergoers. And for those who can't make it to see the show, NBC is bringing an hour-long, stop-motion animated version (based on both the movie and the musical) to TV on December 16th.
Elf: The Musical continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through December 7, 2014. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816 or by visiting www.cincinnatiarts.org/aronoff-center. For more information on the tour, please visit www.elfthemusicalontour.com.-- Scott Cain