Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Also see Bill's review of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
Bob Martin and the late Thomas Meehan wrote an expert book, which gave Matthew Sklar (music) and Chad Beguelin (lyrics) the opportunity to hang some catchy tunes on this Christmas tree of a musical. (Sklar and Beguelin also wrote the scores for The Wedding Singer and the new Broadway musical The Prom.) "Sparklejollytwinklejingley" may well be the best nonsense-word song written since the Sherman brothers put their pens down, and "A Christmas Song" ain't half bad as a toe-tapper to ring out act one.
The first act is almost relentlessly treacly, not that I mind a sugar high, but it is a bit of a relief that act two opens dark with "Nobody Cares About Santa," followed by "Never Fall in Love with an Elf," which has great potential as a torch song showstopper. Elf turns out to be a quite good and very family friendly musical, and I liked it far more than I ever thought I would.
This production, neatly directed by Kyle Ann Lacertosa, features a cast of Manatee Center for the Performing Arts regulars. This is their best Christmas production in several years. The last couple of seasonal shows seemed plagued by low energy, possibly due to conflicting holiday celebrations, but the energy is all in place this year. Jason Moore stars as Buddy the elf, the titular elf, who is in search of the family he didn't know he had. Moore sings strongly and brings a nice amount of charm. Along the way, Buddy finds a girlfriend, Jovie, acted and especially sung with brio by Brenna Griffith in her first leading role.
Buddy's family consists of father Walter, played by Mike Nolan, fine as always in a supporting role, Walter's wife Emily, played by Madison Bradley, and brother Michael, Tyler Gevas at the performance I saw (he alternates with Auggie Toynton). Tyler has one of the best youthful voices I've heard on a community stage in quite a while, and Ms. Bradley matches him in their important duets ("I'll Believe in You" and "There Is a Santa Claus"). Eldred Brown, Jr. warmly portrays Santa Claus, who acts as our narrator. The rest of the ensemble cast weave in and out of small roles and enliven every number they are in. Colton Larsen stands out as a dominant presence whenever he appears; until now I didn't realize how good a dancer he is.
Ms. Lacertosa directs with a firm hand for clear storytelling, but it is choreographer Vanessa Russo who is the true heroine of this production, producing solid dancing from her ensemble cast, especially the tap in "A Christmas Song." This production gives lie to the feeling that dance is rarely the strong point in a community theater production.
Music direction is credited to Michelle Neal, and three musicians are listed in the program, but pre-recorded tracks are in use and I saw no signs of a conductor. In this instance, I think the tracks are a good idea, as they give a lift to the songs that clearly want to take off and fly and there is no patchy singing, often associated with tracks.
Caleb Carrier has designed attractive settings, Sandy Brophy provides costumes that sparkle and twinkle, and Dalton Hamilton has effectively lit the show. Stunning projections add visual luster.
Manatee Players gets the opportunity to present Elf the Musical for the first time in this area, and I am pretty sure it will show up regularly from here on. Families will enjoy this show as part of their holiday season.
Manatee Players' Elf the Musical, through December 16, 2018, at Manatee Center for the Performing Arts, 502 3rd Ave W., Bradenton FL. For tickets and information, call 941-748-0111 or visit www.manateeperformingartscenter.com.