The Musical

Book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin
Music by Matthew Sklar
Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Based on the film, screenplay by David Berenbaum
Directed by Casey Nicholaw
Starring Sebastian Arcelus, Amy Spanger, Mark Jacoby,
Beth Leavel and George Wendt as Santa
Al Hirschfeld Theatre
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

It would be inaccurate hyperbole to call Elf a perfect musical, because if one is being a real stickler, there are choices and details to carp at. But when you take into account that this adaptation of the 2005 Christmas movie is craftsmanlike, exuberant, savvy and first rate in all departments, you’re more than happy to proclaim it more than the sum of its not-inconsiderable parts and forego quibbling. This is one of that relatively recent phenomenon, the Christmas season book musical that’s meant to be a perennial; but unlike White Christmas (a fairish adaptation of the film) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (a tediously padded adaptation of the Seuss animated TV special), which lasted two seasons apiece, Elf has the high octane rightness to last longer than that, maybe even as long as the bloated but entertaining A Christmas Carol extravaganza that played at Madison Square Garden for nearly a decade.

                        It tells the tale of Buddy (a delightfully, shamelessly credulous Sebastian Arcellus), who is shocked to learn that he isn’t the North Pole elf he’s always thought he was (growing to full, human height wasn’t sufficient clue). Santa (George Wendt, a little befuddled and not a little adorable) finally has to tell the truth—as he knew he someday would—that as an infant, Buddy crawled into Santa’s sack by mistake. But once he’d arrived at the North Pole it didn’t seem quite right to return him, because there was no real family for him: his unwed mother had died in childbirth and his father, never knowing about her pregnancy, had moved on to raise his own family with someone else. And so it is on Buddy’s 30th year, he ventures forth into New York City to unite with his family, publishing exec dad Walter Hobbs (the absurdly driven Mark Jacoby), stepmom Emily (Beth Leavel, level-headed yet soft-hearted) and younger stepbrother Michael (the agreeably excitable Matthew Gumley). But of course, it isn’t as easy as all that: relationships and even belief in elves and Santa are complex issues south of the Pole. Yet there are compensations for the effort, one of them (of course) being that Buddy finds a girl friend in the (of course) initially doubtful Jovie, who is new to New York City from L.A. and has never seen snow (big-eyed, big-voiced, heart-faced Amy Spanger).

                        Because Elf is (literally) built for annual limited engagements and perhaps tour as well, it has the look and mechanics of a production that can be dismantled and reassembled in any number of compatible-sized theatres; which is in part to say an old-fashioned look Under the direction of The Drowsy Chaperone’s Casey Nihcolaw, though, the design and creative team have embraced that—never explicitly, but with subtle matter-of-factness—stem to stern, and just full out created a “good, old-fashioned musical.” It has contemporary references (some of which will warrant revising as, ironically, they’ll be the only things to date the show) and a contemporary sense of pace and compression; but in terms of construction, musical comedy sensibility, the sound of the score (down to the details of Doug Besterman’s giddily joyous orchestrations) and in what they playing style evokes (rather than mimics), it has the heart and soul of a musical from the late 1950s. And in not announcing its nostalgic spirit, but merely and knowingly being what it is, it manages to be an exercise in charm the like of which Broadway hasn’t seen since…well, since The Drowsy Chaperone.

                        If there’s a flaw to mention (I’ll allow myself one) it’s that the otherwise sturdy book by Thomas (Annie, The Producers) Meehan and Bob (Drowsy…) Martin is sometimes a little too perfunctory about its transitions, sometimes confusing dispatch for economy; but it is a fine libretto nonetheless and gives songwriters Matthew Sklar (music) and Chad Beguelin (lyrics) the chance to create one of the most traditionally, memorably, old-school literate and tuneful scores to be heard on Broadway in a lotta years. That the audience eats it up with a spoon the way they don’t at evenings whose scores are less generous of spirit (or simply less accomplished and professional) oughtta be a lesson for someone, somewhere, in this age where the Powers That Be are too often unable to distinguish between adventurous professional writing and absolute renegade crap. Which is not to say that the score for Elf is adventurous or that we should be rebooting the old school at the expense of the new. I mean only that the earmarks of “good” are so apparent that it reveals anything less than that to be a con job in the service of laziness disguised as innovation. So there.

                        Every member of the cast is sensational, down to the smallest support role, but let’s pause to honor the most featured, Michael McCormick, Michael Mandell and Valerie Wright.

                        Perfect—or near-perfect, I guess—is in the eye of the beholder, and “classic” takes time to be meaningful (to say nothing of its many acquired meanings), but I guess I can say this much with impunity: In an era where the future of musical theatre on Broadway is constantly imperiled, abused and in doubt, Elf, despite its wintertime setting, shoots forth a solid, warm shaft of hope. Merry Christmas indeed.

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