As often happens with screen to stage adaptations, I haven’t seen the movie on which Elf, the musical is based. I may see it now, because I certainly like the underlying story, and the wry but sweet sensibility at work. That underlying story follows Buddy (Sebastian Arcelas), one of Santa’s elves who discovers that he is in fact not an elf but a human. Buddy goes to New York City to find his father – who turns out to be a jerk-faced mid-level publishing exec. Sentimental holiday-themed transformations ensue as sure as winter follows autumn.
David Rockwell’s sets are an angular love letter to Manhattan, with a dash more panache than other stage skylines we’ve seen. Arcelas works overtime to live up to Buddy’s explosively cheerful naivete. The supporting cast is uniformly strong, with particularly hilarious work from Michael Mandell as a busybody Macy’s Santaland manager.
Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw has successfully balanced the tricky tone of the show; with the first couple of numbers, I was a little concerned about going into sugar shock from the overweening sweetness. As the show progressed, though, I realized this was necessary for building a contrast between smiley Christmas-town and cynical NYC. The score by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin is sturdy and bouncy, if only intermittently memorable – though the melody of “The Story of Buddy the Elf” will stay in you head for days.
Elf doesn’t rework its cinematic source material as effortlessly as, say, Hairspray or The Producers, but it does manage to wring some real warmth out of what have could have been a very by-the-numbers operation. And it also bears saying the kids in the audience seemed to be having a ball, which is what really matters with a show like this. No musical theatre history being made here – and not likely many awards to be won – but Elf is solid, workmanlike family entertainment.
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