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Elf (11/14/2010 - 01/02/2011)


New York Post: "Onstage, not his old 'Elf'"

There's a reason candy canes have a twist of peppermint -- to cut the sugar. That's why the best Christmas classics, from "It's a Wonderful Life" to "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," are so satisfying: They have a dark undercurrent that makes the payoff all the sweeter.

"Elf," the holiday musical that opened on Broadway last night, is a giant spoonful of uncut sugar.

Based on the 2003 hit movie, the show tells the tale of Buddy, who, after being raised by elves at the North Pole, reunites with his human family in New York. He teaches them a thing or 10 about the true spirit of Christmas, and even finds love with a sardonic department-store worker.

The screen Buddy was played by Will Ferrell, who brings a naughty, slightly sleazy quality to everything he does. Here, we get the sunny, milquetoast Sebastian Arcelus. He's appealing and works very hard, but lacks the gleefully anarchic strain that made Ferrell's Buddy such a cathartic force of nature.

But then, everything has been toned down several notches. Book writers Bob Martin ("The Drowsy Chaperone") and Thomas Meehan ("Hairspray," "The Producers") can't seem to tell the difference between childlike and childish. It's all very tasteful and safe, when the show should conjure semi-lawless energy. After all, Buddy is well-intentioned but also single-minded in his quest for fun.

Here's a telling change: In one of the movie's best gags, Buddy runs through a revolving door over and over; he gets so dizzy that he throws up (laughs); then he goes right back in (more laughs). In the show, Buddy goes through the door three times, emerging winded but happy. That's it -- and it completely misses the point.

Luckily, the main cast members are easy to like. Amy Spanger is spunky as the girlfriend who doesn't like to sing -- not the ideal part in a musical. George Wendt ("Cheers") bookends the show as an amiable Santa, and Valerie Wright is delightful to watch in the office scenes. Beth Leavel (another "Drowsy Chaperone" alum) is very funny as Buddy's new stepmother, with dry mannerisms that often recall Jane Lynch.

Too bad they all feel underused.

The show looks good, thanks to Gregg Barnes' colorful costumes -- the elf outfits are particularly snazzy -- and David Rockwell's evocative sets. But Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin's score, while efficient, lacks the juice they brought to the underrated "The Wedding Singer." Casey Nicholaw's direction and choreography are similarly restrained, and only rarely summon the inspired mayhem the show needs.

Guess we shouldn't hold our breath for a satisfyingly savage musical version of "Bad Santa."

New York Post

New York Times: "North Pole Naïf Tries to Thaw Hearts"

In some remote corner of Santa’s kingdom up at the North Pole, elves are whistling show tunes as they work. Instead of sewing button eyes on dolls and fiddling with the circuitry of game consoles, a small but dedicated cadre of Santa’s tireless helpers are manufacturing splashy, peppy, sugarsprinkled holiday entertainments destined for Broadway. The latest product to be shipped south for family consumption is “Elf,” a musical adaptation of the popular Will Ferrell movie that opened Sunday night at the Al Hirschfeld Theater.

Featuring songs by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin (“The Wedding Singer”) and a book by Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) and Thomas Meehan (lots of shows more interesting than “Elf”), this new musical is the latest seasonal stocking stuffer and pocket picker in the mold of “White Christmas” and “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas”: tinseled in synthetic sentiment, performed with a cheer that borders on mania, and instantly forgettable.

“Elf” tells the story of an orphaned baby raised by Santa and his helpers at the North Pole. When he grows up, he bumps his head on the rafters and his heart on the sad discovery that while he shares the sunshiny spirit of his diminutive co-workers, he’s not just taller and round-eared but also fundamentally different.

And so Buddy, played by the aptly elfin-looking Sebastian Arcelus, heads off to grouch central, namely New York City, in search of his father. Buddy, a 30-year-old innocent, is obviously unaware that his furry green mini and striped tights are likely to have him hustled into the nearest drag bar and thrown onstage to lip-sync a few numbers from Mariah Carey’s holiday album.

Naturally dad turns out to be a supergrouch, Walter Hobbs (Mark Jacoby), a workaholic publisher of children’s books with no time for his exasperated wife (Beth Leavel) and neglected son (Matthew Gumley). Unskilled at reading the emotional cues of humans, Buddy ignores dad’s sourpuss glare and proceeds to ingratiate himself with his new family and heal various wounds. He also sings a lot of songs, leads a lot of dances, acquires a girlfriend (Amy Spanger) and decks all available halls with a belief in Santa Claus, knowledge of the True Meaning of Christmas and the general good spirits so glaringly absent from this review.

Having just dosed myself with eggnog and watched the ever-enchanting “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the only Christmas-theme movie I can still endure, I will now make a concerted attempt to accentuate the positive.

The score is generic, true, but it is also polished, hummable-tune laden and professional. Mr. Beguelin’s lyrics, at their best, have a bright comic zest and are well-matched to Mr. Sklar’s gently swinging music. The boogie-woogie “Nobody Cares About Santa,” featuring a chorus line of professional Santas sharing a Christmas Eve meal at a Chinese restaurant, is a rowdy parody of the rival Rockettes show at Radio City.

The director, Casey Nicholaw, coaxes fine work from the performers, who do their chores with unfailing commitment. Mr. Jacoby exudes frost and then melts convincingly. Ms. Leavel sighs at her husband’s lack of Christmas cheer and mothers her new stepson with crisp efficiency. Mr. Gumley is an excellent singer and a fine, blessedly uncloying actor. George Wendt, of “Cheers,” is on hand to bookend the tale with jolly-wry narration as the actual Santa Claus.

Mr. Martin and Mr. Meehan, while following the screenplay by David Berenbaum, have also stuffed some decent jokes into the recipe, boosting the fruitcake with extra nuts. (“Christmas is all about fighting with your family,” one of the fake Santas offers by way of cheering up the despondent Buddy after dad kicks him out.) David Rockwell has lavished much care on the set design, creating detailed vistas of Rockefeller Center and Central Park. I do wish he hadn’t strewn quite so much digital holiday imagery all over the place, wallpapering the sets with snowflakes and candy canes in dizzying quantities.

Mr. Arcelus, in the central role, has tough curly-toed shoes to fill. Mr. Ferrell brought a lyrical, deadpan innocence to his performance in the movie that would probably get lost in such an aggressively festive Broadway show. The hard-working Mr. Arcelus replaces it with a goofball, ingratiating geniality that’s not quite as subtle, fresh or endearing.

And the show’s authors should have excised the scene in which Buddy is mistaken for a holiday-gram delivery boy and asked to sing his darn song and get out. Since Buddy has been leading rousing numbers since the top of the show, his stammering tunelessness makes no sense.

Then again, if we’re getting out the gift-wrapping shears, I’d really like to cut out the syrupy speech in which Buddy lectures us on how the true spirit of Christmas doesn’t just reside in a belief in a certain gift-giving, mirthful old fellow of girth, but also in “staying up all night making paper snowflakes with your little brother,” and how “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” (The same line is played with a wink in the movie.)

But I fear the eggnog is wearing off, so perhaps I’d better stop now.

New York Times

USA Today: "Merry 'Elf' earns a place on the 'nice enough' list"

The days are growing shorter and the weather colder, and you know what that means: 'Tis the season for fluffy, holiday-themed musicals on Broadway.

Every year seems to bring at least one entry, snowing banal good cheer on theatergoers (sometimes literally, as anyone who has walked out with a head full of confetti knows). In this year's model, Elf (* *½ out of four), which opened Sunday at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, that cheer is at least served with a light heart and endearingly goofy humor.

Adapted from the 2003 film comedy (starring Will Ferrell), Elf follows the adventures of Buddy, a 30- year-old man who as a baby was rescued by Santa Claus after his mother died. Raised by Santa's little helpers, Buddy comes to believe he is one of them, though the evidence — his height, mainly — indicates otherwise.

Buddy is set straight near the beginning and dispatched to New York City to meet his father, a hard-bitten business executive who never knew of his then-girlfriend's pregnancy. "I should tell you," Santa warns him, "he ... he's on the Naughty list."

Even if you haven't seen the movie, you can guess how it all turns out. But director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw and his game, nimble cast allow us to enjoy the ride, however predictable.

The players aren't helped much by the formulaic songs of Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin. Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin's libretto isn't long on surprises, either — there are the usual cheeky popculture references and ingratiating nods to tourists and locals — but it provides some easy, breezy laughs. "I can't believe you didn't see this coming," Santa tells a disillusioned Buddy. "You're 6-foot-2. We've got to special order your tights on Amazon."

Old Kris Kringle gets many of the best lines, and George Wendt, formerly of TV's , delivers them with winningly wry understatement. As Buddy, Sebastian Arcelus has more stage time and more opportunities to wax maudlin, particularly after he stumbles upon his dad and his new family. But the sprightly, likable actor manages to sustain our attention and, for the most part, affection.

Mark Jacoby and Beth Leavel prove similarly adroit as Buddy's curmudgeonly dad and long-suffering stepmother, who have a younger son, played by the gifted but rather too aggressively precocious Matthew Gumley. Amy Spanger brings the right mix of suppressed sweetness and gentle spice to the lonely, jaded young woman who becomes Buddy's love interest.

Scenic designer David Rockwell stylishly represents landmarks such as Rockefeller Center and Macy's at Herald Square. No doubt some who see Elf will check out the real places as part of the same seasonal ritual that brings them to the theater district.

If this show isn't the most memorable stop on their tour, they could do — and have done — a lot worse.

USA Today

Variety: "Elf"

Warner Bros. Theater Ventures, which controls numerous properties but is offering only its second self-produced Broadway musical, has clearly learned from its mishaps on the first. ("Lestat," anyone?) The creators -- apparently under the close supervision of director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw (of "The Drowsy Chaperone" and the well-received Encores production of "Anyone Can Whistle") -- have taken a highly enjoyable film and enhanced it for theater audiences.

Nicholaw's staging successfully retains the many charms of the movie, and his choreography is filled with delightful touches, starting with the very first number, when he cleverly manages to make his 6-foot-plus leading man, Sebastian Arcelus, look twice the size of his dancing elves. Librettists Thomas Meehan ("The Producers") and Bob Martin ("The Drowsy Chaperone") retain the spirit and cheer of the film while cannily punching it up: Their Santa travels with an iPad tucked in his belt, which not only earns big laughs but illustrates that "Elf," which is only seven years old, has been given a knowing brush-up for Broadway.

The efforts of Nicholaw, Meehan and Martin compensate for a less-than-overwhelming score from Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin; their work is only slightly better than on their earlier attempt, "The Wedding Singer." There are a few effective songs ("Sparklejollytwinklejingley," "Nobody Cares About Santa," "The Story of Buddy the Elf"), but these are the exception. Their all-important Christmas song, not-so-creatively called "A Christmas Song," falls especially flat. Music director Phil Reno and orchestrator Doug Besterman contribute a sometimes swinging big-band sound, which helps.

The show seemingly has learned lessons from the overpowering screen-to-stage adaptations of "Shrek" and "The Little Mermaid," whose producers tried to overwhelm audiences with super-sized effects that all but drained their wares of magic. Here, the creators invite the audience to use its imagination -- and auds are sure to respond. In fact, "Elf" is the antithesis of "Big: The Musical": Just about everything that went wrong with that big-budget fiasco goes right here.

How is "Elf" without Will Ferrell? Arcelus, recently a replacement Jersey Boy, can't hope to compare with the Hollywood superstar. But he needn't; within the context of the show, he makes an engaging Buddy, carrying the affair with a broad, likable smile. Mark Jacoby as the father, George Wendt (of "Cheers") as Santa and Amy Spanger as the love interest are fine if you've never seen their superior screen counterparts.

Beth Leavel (like Nicholaw and Martin, a Tony winner for "Drowsy") is hidden in a relatively small role. Standing out in supporting parts are singing comedian Michael Mandell as the toy manager at Macy's, Valerie Wright as a secretary who moves like a Fosse dancer, and a very funny child actor named Matthew Gumley as Buddy's younger brother.

Scenery features David Rockwell's customary flair, although the limited run necessitates a visibly economical scale; Rockwell does, however, give us a real ice-skating rink. Gregg Barnes' costumes are generally fine, with numerous enjoyable touches (like those bright green and red high-top sneakers in the Macy's number). One wonders, though, why Spanger wears a short red dress with a light unbuttoned sweater in Central Park on Christmas Eve while everyone else has winter coats, mufflers and hands stuffed in pockets. Natasha Katz's lighting is an asset, especially her Tavern on the Green electrified tree and a cyc flooded with color (including jade green for an unemployed-Santa dance).

Warner presumably plans to bring the tuner back next Thanksgiving/Christmas, with additional companies playing big cities (as was done with "White Christmas"). Daniel Radcliffe and "How to Succeed" start their move into the Hirschfeld in mid-January, but if "Elf" business is strong enough, the producers might want to consider packing up the tinsel in Santa's sled and transferring to one of Broadway's several soon-to-empty houses. "Elf" onstage should appeal to a widespread audience, and not just for Christmas.


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