BWW Reviews: Theatre Under the Stars' ELF Offers More Sugar Than Substance
ELF, a holiday themed musical, first opened on Broadway in 2010. With the 2003 motion picture of the same title starring Will Ferrell as source material, theatergoers all over were interested in the sugarcoated musical. Negative reviews lead to a re-tooling of the show, and it returned to Broadway in 2012 in addition to having a mini tour of the US. Now, in 2013, Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) is bringing the confection to Houston audiences with a locally produced production of the saccharine holiday confection that is rather donuts for dinner.
The familiar story of Buddy the elf is adapted for the stage by Tom Meehan and Bob Martin in the form of a haphazardly hewn Book that glosses over some of the more comical portions of the film and chooses to cut scenes that would have probably worked really well on stage. Likewise, a fair knowledge of the film is needed as several of these omitted scenes are discussed in the dialogue. This leaves the audience with a show that clunks along, feels unnecessarily long in the first act, and resolves so quickly that the audience practically forgets how it all began. Instead of charming and sticking with us, Tom Meehan and Bob Martin's Book for ELF makes the musical instantly forgettable.
Music and Lyrics and Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin aren't much better than the Book. The score pulsates with a tangible sweetness, but with the exception of Jovie's second act ballad "Never Fall in Love" and the oft-repeated chorus of "A Christmas Song," none of the songs really stick with the audience after the final bow. This is not to say that the songs aren't fun in the context of the production, but once the conductor puts his baton down the sometimes giggle inducing lyrics and stereotypic Christmastime musical flourishes like snow in Houston are a distant memory.
With that said, TUTS' ELF isn't a complete disappointment. In fact, the work done by the people employed by TUTS is quite radiant and glee inducing. ELF's strongest asset is the ebullient and energetic choreography by Michelle Gaudette. It is in the flashy choreography that this production of ELF truly comes to life, utilizing eye-popping stage pictures, Fosse-esque hands, high kicks, splashes of modern hip-hop, and effervescent modern jazz techniques to fill the stage with mesmerizing kinetic movement. She even meets the challenge of staging the cast on rollerblades with skill, creating a visually gorgeous rendition of "A Christmas Song" near the end of Act I.
As director, Bruce Lumpkin has coached the cast to play the characters with all the required zeal for a family friendly holiday spectacle. Despite the issues with the book, each member of his cast fully commits to their assigned roles and does the best they can with the material. Likewise, Bruce Lumpkin works hard to vastly improve the weaknesses in the writing by having Walter Hobbs undergo as much of a transformation from curmudgeon to believer as possible.
Taking on the iconic Buddy, Tommy J. Dose makes the character very much his own. Surprisingly, much of Will Ferrell's classic manic fervor is missing from his portrayal, but Tommy J. Dose still makes Buddy awkward but loveable. He bounces around the stage cheerfully and clearly has fun with the character, but as a fan of the film, I did find myself wanting more bounce, pep, and uninhibited energy from him and his performance. Sadly, the Book for the musical really sells the character short, so much of my discontentment with the character actually comes from the writing and not Tommy J. Dose's acting. For example, throughout the production, Buddy leads the cast in big song and dance numbers but cannot tunefully sing on command when mistaken for a signing elf gram in his father's office.
Playing the characters that undergo the most change in the plot, Mark Jacoby as Walter Hobbs and Jessica Rush as Jovie begin their arcs as sardonic, sour personages and abruptly morph into cheerful denizens of New York City with a passion for Christmas. Again, in the way the show is written, much of the development of their characters is excised and the audience must just accept that they fully change with little motivation. Regardless, both Mark Jacoby and Jessica Rush earnestly put forth laudable effort in bringing these characters to life and making their transformations meaningful in the moments in which they occur. Moreover, Jessica Rush's rendition of "Never Fall in Love" is a true highlight of the production and is one of the most rewarding and affecting parts of the syrupy musical.
The remainder of the large cast delivers engaging performances that entertain. Cynthia Ferrer charms as Buddy's stepmother Emily. Standouts in the ensemble include Mark C. Reis and Carlos Lopez as the sycophantic Matthews and Chadwick, Julia Krohn's Deb the secretary, Michael Tapley as both the Macy's Manager and a disgruntled Santa, and Logan Keslar's discontented Santa at the beginning of "Nobody Cares About Santa."
Adding a layer of pizzazz is Matthew Smucker's inspired snow globe like Scenery Design. From the shape of the curtains to the flat yet three-dimensional cutouts of the New York City skyline, he keenly creates the visual aesthetic of a snow globe for the entirety of the production, which really emphasizes the importance of snow in the show's finale.
Theatre Under the Stars' ELF serves its purpose and offers Houston audiences something different to enjoy this holiday season. While I doubt that many will be rushing to snap up tickets for repeat viewings, tickets to the show will still make a great stocking stuffer or early Christmas gift. It's not perfect by any means, but the talent on stage makes the show worth seeing.
ELF, produced by Theatre Under the Stars, runs in the Sarofim Hall at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby Street, Houston, 77002 now through December 22, 2013. Performances are Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. For more information and tickets, please visit http://www.tuts.com or call (713) 558-8887.
Photos by Bruce Bennett. Courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars.
William Hartery as Santa along with the cast members of ELF.