BWW Review: ELF at First Stage is the Merriest Show in Milwaukee!
First Stage has given us all an early Christmas present in Elf the Musical. Yes, the merriest show in Milwaukee right now is one about a human raised by elves. Elf is a joyful, exuberant, super-playful night of theater that caters to kids and full-sized humans alike. It's also running through December 29th and so would make a fantastic Christmas present or holiday outing.
For those familiar with the Will Farrell classic, Elf the Musical does indeed closely follow the movie. If the film is a seasonal favorite of yours, as it is mine, rest assured this production in no way sabotages or detracts from its source material in any way. Elf the Musical is its own sparkle-jolly-twinkle-jingly entity, and I'd say it's as delightful as the movie - albeit, in different ways.
For those unfamiliar with Elf, here's the gist: On Christmas Eve many years ago, a baby crawled into Santa's pack, came home with the Big Man to the North Pole, and was subsequently raised by elves. Buddy has grown up believing he's an elf, but learns at age 30 that he is, in fact, a human.
Although his mother passed away shortly after he was born, Buddy's human dad, Walter Hobbs, is alive and well - and on the Naughty List. Buddy journeys to New York City to find the workaholic Walter and rekindle his dad's Christmas spirit. While there, Buddy meets Jovie, a pretty department store elf, and Walter's neglected wife and son, Emily and Michael. Let's just say it's up to Buddy to save Christmas.
In this First Stage production, Buddy is played to effervescent perfection by Adam LaSalle. Even alongside an immensely strong ensemble cast, LaSalle stands out and buoys the show with elf-like ease. His is a Buddy that's adorably naive, dimpled and rosy-cheeked, seeing every bit of the world through a lens of sincere childlike wonder. LaSalle is a jazz-hands and "ta-da!" kind of Buddy.
His comedic timing is always spot-on, and show isn't just recycling the same jokes as the movie. For instance, when Buddy tells Walter he can't afford a Christmas gift, he instead offers him the choice of "1,000 butterfly kisses or a bracelet made of my hair." There's a lot of out-loud laughter at Elf the Musical - and, as the subtitle suggests, loads of song and dance. LaSalle's voice is wonderfully clear as a bell. I could go on gushing, but you get the picture. LaSalle embodies Buddy's infectious Christmas spirit, and it's an absolute delight.
Backing up Buddy is a stellar cast of characters. The Hobbs family really tugs at heartstrings, even the workaholic Walter (Alan Ball) whose callous exterior slowly softens. Natalie Ford as Emily and Nolan Zellermayer (of the Twinkle-Jingly kids cast) as Michael are particular stand-outs.
An eighth grader at Longfellow Middle School, Zellermayer has an incredibly strong singing voice paired with acting chops that make him an up-and-coming one to watch. He's especially good in the way he plays off his fellow actors. Together, Zellermayer and Ford deliver one heck of a duet; their "I'll Believe in You" just might make your eyes all watery.
The entire cast nails choreography by Katelin Zelon. It's inventive and impressive how First Stage is able to pack so many people into their performance space, while still somehow giving the actors room to dance big. Some standout dance numbers were Buddy's arrival in busy New York, Act Two's jazzy little opener "Nobody Cares About Santa," and of course the Grand Finale. Costume and scene design by Melissa Torchia and Kristin Ellert, respectively, are equally miraculous. There's nothing not to love about the way Elf the Musical looks, feels, and sounds.
One final shout-out to my favorite sixth man of First Stage: the audience. Seeing and hearing kids react is one of the highlights of attending a show geared toward children. As the show opens and Santa Claus (Steve Watts) takes his place in a big comfy chair to tell us the story of Buddy the Elf, a child behind me loudly asked, "Is that Santa?"
Little boys popped up to the edge of their seats during Buddy's fight with a department store Santa. Across the way, a little girl in a Frozen costume was out of her chair dancing along with the finale. From story to staging to audience, First Stage is always a charming and nostalgic reminder to, as Elf's "Christmas Song" says, "Remember who you were back then, Let those moments live again."