BWW Reviews: The Fulton Goes Over the Top for Christmas with ELF
He's not just gigantic for an elf, he's pretty big for a human. He really should have figured it out long ago. But clueless as Buddy The Elf is about some things, he's pretty darn smart where it counts. He knows about joy, and love, and singing. And hot cocoa. And about making people happy. Compared to that, determining your genetic makeup is silly stuff that really does not matter. That was the premise of the popular 2003 Christmas movie with Will Ferrell. But that movie was still insufficiently joyful, as it was not a musical. A Christmas musical about a happy, singing used-to-elf is even more happy-making. With book by Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan (DROWSY CHAPERONE) and lyrics and music by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, it made for an even holly jollier Christmas as of 2010. Could anything be happier?
As it turns out... yes. Because while, in the Broadway and tour musical, Buddy brings happy, singing joy to a New York Christmas, he doesn't dance his way into our hearts. Big mistake from the big guy. But wait, that's so last production. The new production, that's just opened at the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, has set director/choreographer Marc Robin upon the show, and that means that no tap shoe will be left unworn. This writer has always felt something was lacking from the original musical, and now knows what it was: gigantic tap production numbers. It's a formula that's worked for the Rockettes at Christmas for decades, and it works here too. Forget the holes in the plot. Forget the awkward moments in the show. Get ready for giant-sized dances through Macy's Santa Land (David Sedaris, admit defeat) and Central Park, and for a show-stopping multi-Santa dance production inside a Chinese restaurant that's straight out of CABARET, but on steroids. You can't help but enjoy yourself; it's as if Buddy himself were bringing you the extra giant mug of hot cocoa with Hershey Kisses melting in it and marshmallows floating on top.
Buddy is supposed to be the world's sweetest being, and with Timothy Hughes filling his giant elf costume, that's entirely believable. Forget the Peter Pan collar, the Malvolio-yellow stockings, the Robin Hood cap. Timothy Hughes can act. He can sing. He can, especially, dance. A happy, jolly elf should be a happy, dancing elf - how did we not know this before? Hughes sells Buddy with the voice, the feet, and an endearing charm that keeps Buddy lovable and adorable without being as saccharine as some productions fall prey to. He's the perfect foil for crabby, overworked father Walter Hobbs (Joe Gately), jaded little brother Michael (Andrew Lyndaker), and cynical New Yorker stepmom Emily (Heidi Kettenring, easily the best Emily this reviewer has heard sing the part). He's enough to wear down the "I hate Christmas" defenses of the girl he loves, Jovie (Kate Fahrner) without being irritating to an audience as well as to her carefully-constructed defenses.
There's an innocence to Buddy that makes his clearly unintended double entendres knowing enough to amuse adults without the nagging feeling that something might be asked by the small children in the audience. Hughes makes that innocence palpable, and it's both necessary and a relief. Gately as unbelieving father Walter Hobbs is the less than innocent counterbalance; it's a touching scene when Buddy asks Walter to tell him about his now-dead mother and Walter realizes that he can't be dismissive of his college relationship any longer. Gately brings Walter's flashes of insight a real presence as Walter grows into a human being rather than a corporate monster. Hughes' "World's Greatest Dad" and "Just Like Him" are perfect reflections of the developing relationship between Buddy and Walter.
Audience favorites during opening night proved to be ELF standards "Happy All the Time," "Nobody Cares About Santa," and Emily and Michael's charming duet, "There Is a Santa Claus." Of the "Nobody Cares" number, it is possible to realize that you've never seen a dozen Santas doing a chair routine while tapping before, and that, surprisingly, you actually were missing out on something. Who knew? The routine itself could have been worked out for CABARET or LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, but nonetheless works with the song and the Santas. If it's a bit reminiscent of a routine Robin used in his THE PRODUCERS (with walkers instead of chairs, in that instance, if this writer recalls correctly), who cares? It works, and it's funny.
That routine and the Macy's dance number to the show's beloved "Sparklejollytwinklejingley" are absolute proof that this is a Marc Robin show. The Macy's scene has more tap, by more Macy's elves, than the author of THE SANTALAND DIARIES could begin to imagine, and that it works while going over the top and coming back down again only proves that the Rockette theory of "never enough tap in a Christmas show" is completely true. The scene is delightful, and Paul Aguirre's Macy's manager is not only funny in the part but a surprisingly talented dancer himself.
The set by Robert Andrew Kovach is nicely rendered, New York enough to feel authentic through the stylized renderings, especially when Buddy and Jovie go skating in Central Park and again when Buddy finds Santa and his sleigh there. Anthony Lascoskie, Jr. has done himself proud with the costumes, and together they've rendered a perfect portrait of an office full of corporate publishing shills waiting for the perfect children's book to fall into their laps. David Girolmo adds to that with his dyspeptic portrayal of an irascible publisher looking for the next big children's story.
Forget the dumb bits, the annoying repetition of jokes about PETA and reindeer, the imperfect working of Santa's sleigh flying off from Central Park, or that poor Emily seems to have no purpose in life but demanding to know if Walter is ever coming home. Forget that there are points where you wonder if Buddy is in love with Jovie or if Walter's administrative assistant, Deb (Lanene Charters) might have something going for her. ELF has always been a celebration of love and innocence, of repudiating everyday cynicism for happiness and imagination at this most magical time of year. This production brings that on in spades, and adds the delight of some huge tap productions that are guaranteed to make even the most hardened Grinches cheer.
This is the biggest, most lavish, most enthusiastically happy of all the area Christmas season productions on regular stages. You can almost feel the cast working on making sure the audience is feeling as if that hot cocoa were being handed out in the aisles. It's a worthy successor to last season's WHITE CHRISTMAS at the Fulton, if less of a total extravaganza. It's a production that manages to be both child-friendly and adult-friendly at the same time, and could easily lure some children in the audience into deciding they want to go to dance classes. If you yearn not just for Christmas shows but for Christmas spectacles, this will satisfy the craving this year.
At the Fulton through January 5, 2016. For tickets and information, visit www.thefulton.org.