BWW Review: ELF THE MUSICAL Brings Holiday Magic and Fun to Crossville's Cumberland County Playhouse
Chris Hallowes Stars as Buddy the Elf in a Dazzling Production
Buddy the Elf - the lead character in Elf, The Musical, by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin - offers the actor cast in the role a true musical theater challenge, for Buddy requires an actor who can sing, dance, act and, perhaps more importantly, charm his way through a riotously funny, sometimes heartrending, script by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin and in the course of two-plus hours completely engage audiences in everything he does.
Luckily, for audiences at Crossville's Cumberland County Playhouse (where Elf, The Musical runs through December 21 in a delightful and sparkling production helmed by producing director Bryce McDonald), the role of Buddy is entrusted to Chris Hallowes, who has proven himself the personification of the term "song-and-dance man" during his tenure at the Playhouse, and who once again proves his mettle with his latest onstage assignment. Were it not for the fact we've always considered Hallowes a star, we'd say Buddy is a starmaking performance for him.
But since he's long been stellar in our estimation, we can only say this: Chris Hallowes is "sparklejollytwinklejingly" in the same way that Julie Andrews is "supercalifragilisticexpialidocius"as Mary Poppins. He's the real deal, gentle readers, and you'd best get your tickets to Elf, The Musical before they're all gone or the run ends far too soon, whichever comes first.
The holiday-themed titles available to theater companies is not as varied as one might expect, which probably explains the surfeit of Christmas Carols, Wonderful Lives and (heaven forbid) Miracles on 34th Street on the theatrical menu between now and the new year. Oftentimes it seems as if playwrights and composers are scraping the bottom of the proverbial barrel when offering up potential shows for the Christmastide - and if Miracle on 34th Street (arguably the worst musical ever written, regardless of theme) represents the very nadir of what's available and White Christmas and Holiday Inn the very best of the lot, then Elf, The Musical, ranks right up there with those two shows which boast Irving Berlin scores.
Elf The Musical is designed to lift your spirits and it does so with style, flair and showbiz razzle-dazzle. Suspend disbelief and you're in for the time of your life!
Based on the 2003 film starring Will Ferrell, Elf, The Musical relates a seasonal story of Buddy's discovery that he is indeed human - the fact that he towers over all the elves in Santa's bustling workshop and that his work ethic is sometimes less than impressive (although his manipulation of an Etch-a-Sketch is frankly remarkable) should have tipped him off to begin with - that propels him on an adventure in New York City that is witty, warm and altogether winning.
Certainly, the musical is far-fetched in the way that all such tales tend to be (let's face it, if we can believe that a rotund older fellow can fly around in a sleigh on Christmas Eve, delivering gifts to well-behaved children all over the world, we can certainly believe Buddy walked all the way from the North Pole to Manhattan to find his birth father), but it's also absolutely heartwarming. In fact, it may well be exactly what you need to experience this holiday season, transporting you from the travails of real life and placing you square in the middle of a Christmastime fantasy that certain to renew your spirit and to make you believe once again in Santa.
With music by Sklar, lyrics by Beguelin and book by Martin and Meehan (based on David Berenbaum's original screenplay), Elf The Musical is a fast-paced pageant of holiday season delights that is heartwarming and entertaining, filled to the brim with various Christmastime tropes and laugh-out-loud comedy. The seasonal gravitas of the musical is leavened with enough acerbic, tongue-in-cheek-wink-wink moments to leave you fairly howling - and, if you're so inclined, enough holiday-spiked emotion to bring tears of heartfelt recognition of your own holiday memories to life.
The story hews close to that of the original screenplay, with some minor tweaks that tighten the plot and underscore the tale of a baby grown to man under the care of Santa's elves after the orphaned child is discovered to have stowed away in the big man's bag of toys after one particularly busy Christmas Eve trip around the world. When Buddy overhears a discussion about the circumstances of his birth and how he came to be part of the elves' family circle - and realizes he is, indeed, a human - he sets off on a life-changing adventure to find his dad in the stone and steel canyons of New York City.
When Buddy takes Manhattan, his adventures kick into high gear and all manner of mischief ensues. It's larger than life, to be certain, and is most assuredly atypical of the usual human holiday, but with the wide-eyed innocence of the title character, brought so vividly to life by the amazingly gifted Mr. Hallowes, it's thoroughly believable and completely authentic. While Buddy proclaims his fondness for the five major food groups of "cookies, candy, candy canes, candy corn and syrup," you are miraculously saved from an equally treacly, diabetes-inducing, too-sugary and saccharine mash-up of Christmastime treatments and, instead, offered a smartly conceived tale of the importance of believing in something during trying times.
Hallowes, who earlier this year delivered one of the season's best performances in the Playhouse's production of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's Bright Star musical, impressively leads director McDonald's superb cast in a production that is visually stunning - thanks to Andy Wallach's gorgeous and colorful costumes, Annmarie Duggan's exquisite lighting, Adam Miecielica's eye-popping and imaginative sets and Crissy Varnell's picture-perfect projections - and, probably more important, staged to engage and entertain in every conceivable way.
McDonald surrounds Hallowes with a terrific cast of Playhouse favorites, who bring the show to live with enough energy to power New York City itself, including Britt Hancock as Buddy's birth father (who heads a publishing company of children's books), Lauren Marshall as his wife (who is beleaguered in that 21st century way that all women are, with a heart so expansive that she welcomes an unexpected stepson with grace) and Altair Zentgraf (as Buddy's younger brother Michael, he delivers a performance that's staggering in its authenticity).
Jess Griffin is particularly well-cast as Jovie, the cynical and beautiful young New Yorker who captures Buddy's heart, while Weslie Webster is terrific as Walter Hobbs' assistant and Ross Griffin and Ethan Hall (who sport the best hair in the western world) are all smarmy and sycophantic as editors on Hobbs' staff. Jason Ross is unctuous and somewhat dastardly as the show's de facto bad guy, Mr. Greenway, the owner of the publishing company, while Michael Ruff and Grayson Yockey steal scenes amid the laughter that ensues when they are onstage as a manager at Macy's and as a fake Santa who does not impress Buddy in the least. Finally, Luke Smith and Kyra Crosby are swell as elves Charlie and Shawanda, while Bill Frey and Patty Payne are well-cast as Santa and Mrs. Claus.
Jensen Crain-Foster and Charlie Munday provide the fancy footwork which keeps the musical moving forward with a terrific combination of athletic energy and showbiz sparkle and pizazz, and Ron Murphy's musical direction and the efforts of his pit orchestra ensure the score is performed with precision, professionalism and artistry.
Elf The Musical. Book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin. Music by Matthew Sklar. Lyrics by Chad Beguelin. Based on the New Line Cinema film written by David Berenbaum. Directed by Bryce McDonald. Musical direction by Ron Murphy. Choreography by Jensen Crain-Foster and Charlie Munday. Stage managed by Josh Helgeson. Presented by Cumberland County Playhouse, Crossville. Through December 21. For tickets and other details, go to www.ccplayhouse.com or call (931) 484-5000, Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).