Review: ELF THE MUSICAL at The Phoenix Theatre Company

The production runs through December 30th at The Phoenix Theatre Company’s Mainstage Theatre.

By: Nov. 25, 2023
Review: ELF THE MUSICAL at The Phoenix Theatre Company

Guest Contributor David Appleford offers good Holiday cheer with a three-cheer review of The Phoenix Theatre Company's Mainstage production of ELF THE MUSICAL, the happy-go-Buddy special, running through December 30th. 

When ELF THE MUSICAL first opened on Broadway in 2010, though the initial reviews were mixed, audiences flocked to see the new, live musical version of a 2003 film that had already become a perennial favorite. When the show transferred from New York to London five years later at the Dominion, it surprised everyone in the theatre community by becoming the fastest-selling show for advanced tickets in the theatre's eighty-nine-year history.

Returning to The Phoenix Theatre Company’s mainstage after a hugely successful 2018 run and continuing from now until December 30, ELF THE MUSICAL bursts on the Phoenix boards in a kaleidoscopic array of Christmas colors that are truly dazzling. Robert Kovach's scenic design coupled with Daniel Davisson's lighting make for an unexpected visual splendor where the colors of the season truly astonish. If nothing else, the production is a yuletide feast for the eyes.

Because of the film's popularity, audiences seeing the musical for the first time will naturally notice narrative differences. There's no Papa Elf telling the story. On the stage, it's the big guy himself, Santa (an appropriately jolly Gene Ganssle, returning to the company from the 2018 production). Santa enters stage-right in his corner man cave. After a remote-control problem with his Roku, plus a reminder for audiences to turn off all cell phones and unwrap that hard candy before the show officially starts, Santa proceeds to tell the tale of Buddy the Elf, who, once we meet him, is clearly no elf at all.

The musical's story arc is much the same as the film. As an orphan child still on his hands and knees, Buddy made the mistake of crawling into Santa's sack. Unnoticed by Santa, Buddy is whisked off, back to the North Pole, which is where Santa later discovers the child, but by then it's too late to take the boy back. So, Santa and Mrs. Claus (Amie Bjorklund, who, once we meet her, is simply superb looking decked in Cari Smith's costume design, with assistance from Maci Hosler) raise the child. But not as their own. 

Buddy the child is raised as an elf, which was perfectly fine when Buddy and the elves were the same sizes, but after thirty years of growing taller and living deliriously happy all the time in Christmastown, being six-foot plus tends to appear somewhat suspicious. Once the clumsy and over-excited Buddy (an appropriately exhaustive Kevin Hack whose energy could light every decorative tree in the theatre's lobby) overhears a private conversation about his background - "I’m an orphan,” he declares, “Just like Annie!” - he decides to leave the North Pole and head back to New York to reconnect with his real father. 

His mother, Buddy learns, passed away, but his dad is still alive. However, there’s a problem.  His father is on Santa’s naughty list – he doesn’t believe – so Buddy in full oversized elf costume, heads south, floats from the North Pole on an iceberg, reaches land, and walks the rest of the way to Manhattan, determined to find his non-believing dad and be the son the New York businessman never knew he had, or wanted.

Another major difference from film to stage is the character of Buddy's father. Walter Hobbs (Chris Eriksen returning from the 2018 production) may still have the same publishing problems of failing to come up with a children's Christmas bestseller in time for the holiday, but he's not as mean-spirited as portrayed in the film by James Caan. The man is not so much work-obsessed, he's under pressure, and he may lose his job. As before, Eriksen's Hobbs is softer around the edges. Once he turns his attention to his wife, (a delightful Debby Rosenthal, also returning) and his son (on opening night played by Zacary Nelson), Erikson’s warm performance makes his overworked character easier to like.

Writers Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin have adapted the show well from its film origins, incorporating the story's overall silliness with occasional laughs for the grownups. When Rosenthal's mom has a heart-to-heart with her son regarding Buddy's mental state, she points out that when a young child believes in Santa Claus, that's all well and good, but when he's thirty, "That's profoundly disturbing." Later, however, when she gets to meet the real Santa, she suddenly goes weak-kneed like a fan backstage at a Michael Buble concert, and tells the big guy, "I really liked you in Miracle on 34th Street.”

Director D. Scott Withers, who played Hobbs in both the 2015 and 2016 national touring productions (and here plays the part of Greenway, Hobbs’ demanding boss) keeps the show tightly reined as it moves from scene to scene. In addition to returning players already mentioned, Jenny Hintze also returns, and charms once again, as Buddy's love interest, Jovie, while newcomer to the cast, Savannah Inez, steals every moment she's on as Hobb's secretary, Deb. The moment she realizes that the tall guy in the elf costume is not a singing telegram but her boss's real-life son is priceless.

Even the large ensemble, many of whom play dual roles throughout, shine with familiar company faces, including Eddie Maldonado, Ellie Barrett Harvey, and Matravius Avent.

The idea that Dad's deadline of having to come up with a new children's Christmas bestseller by midnight on Christmas Eve has never made sense considering that the 24th is the actual end of the buying season; when would it be published, marketed, and sold? - but ELF THE MUSICAL is so full of candy-coated, tinsel-covered goodwill that it's no stretch to overlook the plot's shortcomings. You just go with the yuletide flow.

Plus, fans of musical theatre who occasionally tire of hearing a modern pop/rock score, or worse, are experiencing jukebox musical fatigue, should delight in the tuneful music of Matthew Sklar and the often clever, witty lyrics of Chad Beguelin. Supported by a superior-sounding 16-piece live orchestra under the direction of Kevin Robert White, the score is pure Broadway. 

Because of our country's current divisive issues and the ensuing political turmoil, a new Christmas production with no messages to deliver, just a large dose of seasonal good cheer, is precisely the kind of theatrical diversion required. Elf The Musical on The Phoenix Theatre Company’s mainstage is truly the right show at the right time.

Review: ELF THE MUSICAL at The Phoenix Theatre Company

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Graphics credit to TPTC