The “Red” cast of Elf, The Musical. Photo: YPAS
Elf, The Musical
Book by Thomas Meehan & Bob Martin
Music by Matthew Sklar, Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Directed by Julie Evans
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2021 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
My taste in holidays, and particularly Christmas stories, varies widely from the traditional dark underpinnings of A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life (the most powerful yuletide tales benefit from the inclusion of loss and tragedy) to the Hollywood glamour of White Christmas. But I’ve found myself attracted to more offbeat stories such as the 2003 movie Elf, written by David Berenbaum and directed by Jon Favreau. A perfect vehicle for Will Ferrell, the original screenplay blends a satirical yet still positive holiday spirit with the more mundane and often unforgiving realities of the cynical modern world.
It also features a terrific soundtrack of classic and contemporary Christmas songs, and Buddy the Elf loves to sing, so a musical adaptation for the stage seems natural and, given Broadway’s penchant for pillaging Hollywood for new musicals, inevitable.
Thomas Meehan & Bob Martin’s book wisely drops some of the most individual scenes from the film: no Peter Dinklage leaping at Buddy from a conference table, no duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” between Buddy and Jovie in the shower. These scenes depend on the specific context of the movie for their impact, and the rapey vibe of the latter is likely not missed by anyone, especially with a youthful student cast. I do miss those scenes – it may be the last “innocent” use of that song before a new awareness made clear the problem – but they rely on specific casting and staging that aren’t as easily translated to the stage, and the stage iteration finds functional if not quite as memorable substitutes.
Santa (Bryce Abell) takes over as chief narrator and remains a central character in the Christmas Eve climax when the reduced levels of holiday spirit threaten to spoil every child’s December 25th. It is revealed to Buddy that he was a human infant accidentally stowed away in Santa’s bag 30 years before and that his father is Walter Hobbs (Roman Tate), now a publishing executive
And we know the priority shifts from satiric comic invention to razzle-dazzle musical numbers because Broadway demands it. Elf features a pretty good score, and director Julie Evans has the voices to do it justice. In the cast I saw, Travis O’ Daniel bounded around the stage with energy, a strong singing voice, and just enough rubber-limbed movement and comic timing to nail every laugh. He also showed discipline enough to keep Buddy on the right side of ingratiating. Let’s face it, it would be easy to go overboard with this character, but O’ Daniel never loses control of the whimsy.
The other principals also did fine work: Roman Tate was just “bad” enough to earn his place on Santa’s naughty list but easily redeemed, Olivia Manning essayed a thoughtful portrait of his wife and Buddy’s stepmother, who is sensible enough to get tests going to verify paternity and struggles to accept the highly curious new member of the family, and Lena Hansen is suitably precocious as the youngest Hobbs, Michael. Suffice to say that when each of them opens their mouths to sing they deliver and then some. This being YPAS, we know there is an ample supply of talent, and it is put to good use here. What other company in town could boast a pit orchestra of 30+ musicians?
A standout performance for me was Ellee Usher as Walter Hobb’s Administrative Assistant, Deb. Although a supporting role, Usher’s work is assured enough, and her skills as an actor, singer, and dancer accomplished enough, that it would feel right at home in a professional environment.
The book also positions Buddy’s amour, Jovie, as a darker, more cynical character than she was in the movie, and Heaven Williams’ understated approach to the role emphasizes that wary, depressive nature. Williams has a fine voice but begins the show tentatively before gaining confidence as Jovie warms up to Buddy.
The resources of the academic institution are also on display in the design work; Duper Berry’s sets are opulent and full of color and light, and Jen Groseth’s lighting illuminates and effectively subdivides the space into three stages. Most impressive were the costumes by Amy Berry, accurate in every detail to the characters and context of the story. Young actors portraying adults can very easily look as if they are wearing their father’s suit, but Walter Hobbs and other executives sport sleek suits that fit well, and the female members of the ensemble wear skirts built for movement and dance; light fabrics that accented the movement by following just half a beat behind the body.
As a musical, Elf leans more into the theme of holiday spirit and jettisons much of the adult sensibility of the movie’s humor for pageantry and production numbers. The movie’s visual effects-heavy finale here makes way for a somewhat anticlimactic resolution, but after the curtain falls on that scene the entire cast returns for an extended tap dance number (choreography by Paul McElroy & Zachary T. Boone) that gives the ending an irresistible show biz punch.
Elf, The Musical
November 19, 20, December 3, & 4 @ 7:00 pm
November 20, 21, December 4, & 5 @ 2:00 pm
Youth Performing Arts School
1517 S 2nd Street
Louisville, KY 40208
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.