Thursday, November 18, 2010

Syrupy Holiday Cheer

Gumley and Arcelus in Elf (photo by Joan Marcus)
Book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin
Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Music by Matthew Sklar
Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
Starring Sebastian Arcelus, Amy Spanger, Beth Leavel, Mark Jacoby, Matthew Gumley, Valerie Wright, Michael McCormick, Michael Mandell, George Wendt

Performances through January 2, 2011
Al Hirschfeld Theatre
302 West 45th Street

Based on the movie starring Will Farrell, Elf is a whimsical musical about Buddy, an overgrown Santa’s helper who journeys from the North Pole to Manhattan in search of his real father. Filled with moldy New York jokes, a sappy seasonal moral about love and giving, and an old-fashioned score by Matthew Sklar (assisted by Chad Beguelin’s sometimes clever lyrics), Elf will score with its target audience of unfinicky families looking for holiday entertainment.

Director Casey Nicholaw fills his choreography with arbitrary busyness: the stage is peopled by soulless New Yorkers, Macy’s employees and Central Park visitors wandering or standing around. David Rockwell’s charming cut-out sets give us Tavern on the Green, Rockefeller Plaza, the Empire State Building and Santa’s home, although the overriding feel is feel-good dullness.

Sebastian Arcelus makes a charmingly gawky Buddy the Elf, so it's unfortunate that Amy Spanger’s Jovie lacks the charm necessary to give Buddy a romantic foil after she’s softened by his guilelessness. George Wendt’s jolly Santa is fun, Beth Leavel (Buddy’s stepmom) has priceless comic timing and a big singing voice, youngster Matthew Gumley is droll as Michael, Buddy‘s stepbrother, and Mark Jacoby plays Buddy’s real dad/husband-father-from-hell Walter Hobbs proficiently.

Sklar and Beguelin’s agreeably interchangeable songs include one that tries too hard to be a holiday perennial (“Sparklejollytwinklejingley”) and another that is just right (“A Christmas Song”). Best, however, is “Nobody Cares About Santa,” a bitingly sarcastic lament sung by a group of beaten-down store Santas as if someone had spiked their eggnog. It gives a fleeting glimpse of what Elf might have been without adhering to a tried-and-true formula.

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