Monday, December 15, 2014

And Then Along Came Elf

The holiday season is filled with entertainment traditions. From performances of Handel's Messiah and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker to stagings of A Christmas Carol and The Great Dickens Christmas Fair, both nonprofit and for-profit impresarios are determined to capture their share of audiences looking for family-friendly entertainment (which has led to such popular spinoffs as the Sing-Along Messiah and Dance-Along Nutcracker).

Egged on by popular films like 1946's It's A Wonderful Life (which inspired Joe Landry's 1997 stage adaptation entitled It's A Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play) and 1947's Miracle on 34th Street (which was the basis for Meredith Willson's dismal 1963 musical adaptation entitled Here's Love), those who lack an insatiable appetite for Christmas sales, Christmas carols, and the infernal War on Christmas can easily be guilted into feeling the Christmas imperative.

A surprising subset of Broadway musicals features songs about Christmas even if their plots do not revolve around the December holiday. From 1961's Subways Are For Sleeping ("Be A Santa") and 1963's She Loves Me ("Twelve Days To Christmas") to the holiday office party in 1968's Promises, Promises ('Turkey Lurkey Time"), audiences are urged to get in the spirit if they damned well know what's good for them. Consider this popular song from Jerry Herman's 1966 hit musical, Mame.

Just as the phenomena of pop-up restaurants and gourmet food trucks have gained popularity in recent years, the holiday season has proven to be fertile ground for special events and limited runs. From Lisa Geduldig's annual Kung Pao Kosher Comedy to performances of Gian-Carlo Menotti's beloved Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) and Engelbert Humperdinck's 1893 operatic adaptation of Hansel and Gretel, there are tickets to be sold and money to be made.

With so many movies having been adapted for the musical stage in recent decades (The Lion King, Rocky the Musical, The Little Mermaid, Sister Act, Shrek The Musical, Finding Neverland, Legally Blonde, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Color Purple), it should come as no surprise that producers have seen a potential herd of cash cows in seasonal limited engagements of musicals built around Christmas themes.

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Following engagements in Lincoln, Nebraska; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Manhattan, Kansas; Austin, Texas; and Riverside, California; one of this year's bus-and-truck tours of Elf: The Musical arrived in San Francisco for the final leg of its journey. This was my first experience with the show and I certainly hope it won't be my last!

Eric Williams displays the itinerary for his bus-and-truck tour of Elf: The Musical

From actors on rollerblades (that allow them to simulate ice skating in Rockefeller Center) to parents trying to figure out how to respond to a message written with an Etch A Sketch, the story is filled with lots of jokes that appeal to adults and children alike. Besides, who can't appreciate the joy of embracing a newly-found big brother whose breakfast of choice is a bowl of spaghetti flavored with maple syrup?

Michael (Tyler Altomari) and Buddy (Eric Williams) in
 Elf: The Musical (Photo by: Amy Boyle Photography)

Several visual cues work particularly well in Elf: The Musical.
  • An easily recognizable toy which every child adores (a snow globe) provides a loving plot point. 
  • Buddy the Elf's yellow and green costume has the kind of brand recognition that has been achieved by few musical comedy costumes other than the gaudy red dress that Dolly Levi wears for  the title number of Jerry Herman's 1964 musical in Act II's big scene at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant.
  • The scenery includes landmarks like the Rockefeller Center skating rink and the Empire State Building.
  • Just before the final curtain, the audience gets to watch Santa Claus fly off in his sleigh.
Buddy (Eric Williams) in front of the Empire State Building in
Elf: The Musical (Photo by: Amy Boyle Photography)

What I found particularly appealing about the show was Matthew Sklar's musical score and the way Chad Beguelin's snarky lyrics shape a great novelty song for Jovie. Add in  songs like "Christmastown," "Sparklejollytwinklejingley," "A Christmas Song," "The Story of Buddy The Elf," and a hot, jazzy big band arrangement for "Nobody Cares About Santa" and you've got a show which will continue to delight audiences for years to come.

Elf: The Musical is the kind of show which easily lends itself to a variety of design approaches. I was especially impressed by the production's sets (Christine Peters) and costumes (Gregg Barnes). The opening night performance sped by thanks in large part to Sam Scalamoni's brisk stage direction and Connor Gallagher's energetic choreography.

While Ken Clement (Santa), Jerrial T. Young (a Macy's store manager), Whitney Hayes (Deb), and Joel Stigliano (Mr. Greenway) all lent strong support to the proceedings, the evening really sits on the shoulders of the actor playing Buddy (Eric Williams), who must be an indefatigable song-and-dance man capable of genuine cluelessness, unstoppable good cheer, and moments of pathos. A tall, thin, endearing elf, Williams fit the bill beautifully. He was nicely grounded by his budding romance with the bitter and disillusioned Jovie, played by Maggie Anderson (an extremely appealing ingenue who can belt with the best of them).

Jovie (Maggie Anderson) and Buddy (Eric Williams) in
Elf: The Musical (Photo by: Amy Boyle Photography)

Much of the plot to Elf: The Musical involves Buddy's open-hearted search for his new family which includes his biological father, Walter Hobbs (Jesse Sharp), his stepmother, Emily (Lexie Dorsett Sharp), and their son, Michael (Tyler Altomari). To be able to weave that plot line together with (a) a theme about people who have given up on believing in Santa Claus, and (b) the perils of contemporary dating -- without becoming the least bit cloying -- is a tribute to the solid work by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin on the show's book. Not only is it filled with bad puns and sophisticated laugh lines, unlike many musicals, the second act of Elf: The Musical is much stronger than the first.

Three elves gather backstage with Buddy (Eric Williams)

Performances of Elf: The Musical continue through December 28 at the Curran Theatre (click here to order tickets).

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