BWW Review: Roxy's THE HAPPY ELF Spins A Jazz-Flavored Tale
With a cheerful attitude that knows no bounds, Eubie - the happiest elf at the North Pole - is determined to spread his apropos spirit of the season wherever he goes in Harry Connick Jr.'s The Happy Elf, now onstage at Clarksville's Roxy Regional Theatre in a delightful production directed by Ryan Bowie and starring the appealing John-Paul Fox in the eponymous role.
Running through December 17, the sprightly, fun-filled musical is guaranteed to cure what ails you, to put you in the Christmas spirit and to leave a jazz-flavored tune in your heart, thanks to the efforts of the young and fresh-faced cast that features a blend of local theater favorites and newcomers to the Roxy stage.
Based upon a 2005 animated television special of the same name (which, in turn, was inspired by an original tune by Connick, himself), the live stage version of The Happy Elf features music and lyrics by Connick, with a book by Lauren Gunderson and Andrew Fishman, tells the story of good-natured - and big-hearted - Eubie's efforts to bring happiness and hope to the town of Bluesville, where he discovers most of the "naughty" children on Santa Claus' "naughty or nice" list are acting up, thereby earning their rightful places on the list!
Eubie, played by Fox with fearless optimism and a palpable sense of fun and adventure, loves music, singing and dancing his way through the show's self-named opening number ("The Happy Elf," naturally), which runs him afoul of the dour, disdainful and dismissive Norbert (played with flair by Kendall Adaire Payne), the major domo of Santa's peppermint-scented sweat shop, who summarily threatens to take his hat (which, we learn, gives elves the power to time travel, talk to animals and do other swell stuff) unless he tamps down his enthusiasm and falls into line. Who knew Santa's workshop was such a dismal workplace?
With the support of his elfin friends Hamm (the sublime Matthew Smolko) and Gilda (the ever-engaging Leigh Martha Klinger), Eubie hatches a plot to become part of Santa's three-member sleigh team to deliver the goods on Christmas Eve to good children all over the globe. Unfortunately, despite his best efforts to impress Santa (Roxy veteran Benny Jones makes a great jolly old elf, himself) and Mrs. Claus (Dickson native Emma Jordan comes home for the holidays to play the part) with his cheerful demeanor and catchy turn of phrase, Eubie is assigned to the "Naughty or Nice" office to mete out Christmastime justice.
When Eubie makes his way to Bluesville - dark and dreary in its colorless environs - he discovers that the citizens of the town are the way they are (which is to say: haughty and demoralized) because there's only 23 seconds of sunlight (which miraculously transforms them, however briefly, into loving, caring individuals) every day and the other 23 hours, 59 minutes and 37 seconds they are working, worrying about working, thinking about worrying about working - and generally making their lives and those of the people around them as miserable as they can possibly be! Just ask young Molly (the perfectly acerbic Emily Rourke) or her handler Curtis (an irrepressible Zachary Waters) and they'll be the first to set you straight about what life is like in Bluesville.
Thankfully, the superheroesque Eubie comes to the rescue and, although he hits a few bumps and acquires a few bruises in the process, he manages to hit upon a plan to transform Bluesville into a Christmas-lovin', holiday-celebratin' place of joy, hope and (we suspect, ultimately) a bastion of holiday consumerism...
Though the plotline is slight, to be sure - and it's doubtful we want anything too heavy or serious in our brightly colored and confectionary tales of the season - and the story may appear geared to younger audiences upon first consideration, there is plenty to entertain theater-goers of all ages. Connick's score is jazz-inspired and swing-flavored throughout and the script by Gunderson and Fishman is just sophisticated enough for some jokes to land squarely where they should while ensuring kids won't be bored - and neither will their parents.
Bowie's direction makes certain that the action moves along at a good pace, with each scene dovetailing nicely into the next, and Rourke provides the choreography that enlivens each production number with plenty of timeless movement that makes the story even more accessible. Together, Bowie and Rourke have designed a colorful setting for the play's action that seems the right amount of holiday overload while providing the ideal backdrop for the onstage antics. Noel Rennerfeldt's lighting design helps capture the tone and nuance of the broadly drawn tale in ways both illuminating and creative.
The production's energetic and focused ensemble add to the overall Christmasy feel of the production, creating a sense of kaleidoscopic fun and perpetual motion in the process. Kudos are due young Kylan Elizabeth Ritchie, who's pretty nifty as Young Norbert, and to Reyna Bolton, Scotty Phillips and Melissa Silengo, who stand out among the hard-working chorus.
Harry Connick, Jr.'s The Happy Elf. Music and lyrics by Harry Connick, Jr. Book by Lauren Gunderson and Andrew Fishman. Directed by Ryan Bowie. Choreographed by Emily Rourke. Presented by Roxy Regional Theatre, Clarksville. Running through December 17. For details, go to www.roxyregionaltheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).