BWW Review: Touring ELF: THE MUSICAL at The Paramount Looks the Part but Lacks the Heart
A musical adaptation of the 2003 Christmas movie "Elf" makes a lot of sense: the movie has all of the joy, sweetness, glitz, slapstick, and happily-ever-after for a crowd-pleasing production. This adaptation, now performing for a brief stint at The Paramount Theatre, stays loyal to the vast majority of the content in the movie. Many of the lines are verbatim. Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin's adaptation has tweaks here and there to leave room for elaborate musical numbers (many of which have some fun choreography), but the premise is the same: Buddy is on a quest to find his dad, reconnect with him, and, in the process, revive New York City's (and, indirectly, the world's) lost Christmas spirit.
It's a funny premise: a six-foot-two man, who is raised by elves, is convinced that he is an elf. Once he finds out his human heritage, he moves to New York City on a quest to find his human dad. Here's the thing-the actor playing that elf man has to really nail the childlike wonder that makes Buddy the Elf so funny without crossing into creepy territory. Buddy has little-to-no self-awareness, and has no idea that his behavior is odd. He is oblivious when it comes to things like cynicism and sex, and that has to be blatantly, nay, aggressively obvious. He is, after all, a grown man in an elf costume that believes in Santa Claus, speaks and behaves like a child, and is really into hugging. One would not think that a character so cartoonish like Buddy the Elf would actually be a challenging role to play-maybe because Will Ferrell was so effortless in the original movie "Elf" from which "Elf: The Musical" was adapted. Alas, though Sam Hartley who plays the titular elf in "Elf: The Musical" does a decent job playing silly and getting laughs, he's no Will Ferrell.
As opposed to the boundless, unceasing joy Buddy is used to being around in the North Pole, he's received with disparaging looks, snide remarks, and all-around cynicism from the folks in New York City. Much to Buddy's dismay (or as much dismay as a terminally delightful elf can conjure), his father (played by John Adkison) is a callous workaholic who believes in working on Christmas (and making his staff work on Christmas too). He's married to his job, which negatively affects his relationship with his wife and child. How do you think he reacts when a six foot two man in an elf costume bursts through his office doors declaring that he's his son?
Like most people would react, of course. But somehow, Buddy sneaks himself into the life of his father, Walter Hobbs. He wins over the hearts of Walter's wife, Emily (played by Marie Lemon), and son, Michael (played by Quentin Booth II), pretty quickly.
Like many magical, fantastical Christmas tales, the extension of disbelief is key here. If you take the perspective of the rational, hardened adult that does not believe in magic, then you'll see Buddy as a deranged lunatic who definitely should not have been brought to the Hobbs' household by the police (who he seems to have won over, too). Buddy's comments about his coworkers looking "ravishing" or like they're "so pretty [they] could be on a Christmas card" come off as creepy, not endearing as though a small child said it. Same, too, with his advances for Jovie (played by Mia Gerachis), a woman working alongside Buddy at Macy's. How does Buddy get a job? He stumbles into it when the police foist him onto the Christmas section (when he has to be removed from Walter's place of business the first time), and the manager of Macy's (played by Rendell DeBose) misconstrues Buddy's allusion to the "big guy" he works with as a higher up from corporate.
Returning to Jovie, Buddy does not leave her alone when she spurns his advances, prying her to sing and "eat food" with her. But, he wears her down, because "what the hell", and the two go ice-skating together. Buddy and Jovie's relationship only makes sense in the "opposites attract" sense; Jovie's said that she always picks the worst men to fall in love with, whether it be someone who steals her identity or dresses in an elf costume. He's jolly, and she's pessimistic. Together, they don't exactly make a convincing couple.
"Elf: The Musical" has all of the characteristics of a children's book, but lays on the impure sexual innuendos and cynical visual gags too thickly to feel collectively wholesome. This weighs down Buddy's characterization. Buddy's character feels less charming and more weird every time: the audience is reminded that Santa (played by Mark Fishback) is a schlub with problems, Jovie has very, very low standards with men (she says so herself!), Walter is a neglectful husband and the modern population don't believe in magic. It's a delicate balance, because there are times when Buddy's naïveté works for comedic effect. Buddy just needed to be over-the-top with merriment, and this Buddy tried to go for a more subtle approach.
It's fun to watch the show be retold on stage, especially with such a gorgeous, illustrative backdrop by Christine Peters. It's fun, too, to watch moments from the film get spread out into dance numbers, arranged by David Chase. The elves impressively dance on their knees the whole time! A group of mall Santas doing a chair dance is worth the price of admission.
"Elf: The Musical" showcases a vocally impressive ensemble. As Emily and Michael, Marie Lemon and Quentin Booth II show off their pipes in a charming duet "There Is a Santa Claus". Sam Hartley really nailing the "I'm in a store and I'm singing" scene by actually singing stupendously embodied what works for the character. There is a layer of magic to Hartley's Buddy, and a lot of it has to do with how fabulous a singer and a dancer he is (he can also play the heck out of a pair of bells). Rendell DeBose's musical numbers may be few, but DeBose's voice packs a punch. As the weary Jovie, Mia Gerachis perhaps makes her seem too normal, given how insane her decision making is (her boss, played by DeBose, not-so-lovingly refers to her as "nuts"). But her singing voice is beautiful, and she handles a difficult role well. The cranky Mr. Greenway (played by Joel Stigliano) handled a bizarre technical difficulty with aplomb, to a point where one wondered whether the lights making the office "look like a disco" were intentional. The ad-lib was very in character, and Stigliano played a very funny arrogant big wig. Lemon and Booth's characters have the best chemistry of the bunch, and were very sweet together as mother and son.
The titular elf is what makes or breaks the production, and tonally, this elf's level of merriment was not over-the-top enough to justify his infantile behavior. I give the touring production "Elf: The Musical" a decently entertained and slightly off put B-. The best way to spread Christmas cheer requires more than singing loud for all to hear.
"Elf" performs at The Paramount Theatre through December 10, 2017. For tickets and information, call the box office at 1-800-745-3000, or visit them online at www.stgpresents.org.