REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
At one point during the brilliantly colored musical Elf, Jovie, the disillusioned girlfriend of Buddy the Elf, tells him her philosophy on life: “Lower your expectations so you don’t get disappointed.” Well, that’s the attitude I took into the Fred Kavli Theatre last night, as Theater League’s Western U.S. touring production of the holiday classic opened for a four-day run. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised, for what I expected to be a puerile, cliche-ridden, lowest-common-denominator crowd pleaser turned out to be a smartly written, vibrantly produced, and hugely entertaining crowd pleaser.
One look at the credits will tell you why. Book writer Thomas Meehan won Tony Awards for Hairspray, The Producers, and Annie while co-writer Bob Martin wrote the book for The Drowsy Chaperone (in addition to playing the role of Man in Chair). With composers Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin (The Wedding Singer) penning a sleigh-full of brightly wrapped Christmasy songs, Elf turns out to be a joyous, light-hearted romp for the entire family. The show made its Broadway debut in 2010 and since then, seasonal productions have been sprinkled throughout the country like snowflakes each holiday season.
It’s the time of year when we start hearing the same old Christmas carols over and over again, and this year they seem to have made their invasion earlier than ever. Thus, it’s refreshing to hear so many good, new Christmas songs all in one show: the sprightly show opener, “Happy All the Time,” the celebratory “A Christmas Song,” and the accurately titled “Sparklejollytwinklejingley,” an attempt to fashion another “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” It’s not up to Sherman Brothers level, but it fits the bill for this show.
The story closely follows the 2003 motion picture starring Will Ferrell: Buddy, an orphan stows away in Santa’s sleigh and ends up at the North Pole, where he is raised by Santa’s elves. Upon discovering his life history, Buddy seeks out his real family in bustling Manhattan, and discovers love in the process.
Elf is narrated by Santa Claus, played with great humor and wit by Ken Clement. This isn’t your old-fashioned, cookies-on-the-plate, “ho-ho-ho” Santa. This is a Santa for Millennials, a couch potato who watches Trojan football but doesn’t know how to work the DVR, reads Christmas letters on an iPad, and plays Candy Crush to while away his boredom. Santa is a just another working stiff tired of the grind, and bemoans the fact that PETA has forced him to stop using reindeer to haul his sleigh. In a nod to the local audience, Santa says he’s ready to give up the whole Christmas business and “open a Chipotle franchise in Oxnard,” which received a huge laugh from the audience.
Playing Buddy is six-foot-four Daniel Patrick Smith, a stretched-out Martin Short who is light on his feet and great with a quip. He’s kind of like Tom Hanks in Big: a kid in a grown-up suit who is fascinated by all the new experiences he witnesses in New York – an innocent in a land of cynicism. Buddy has a sweet tooth (understandably) and is on a permanent sugar high; he pours syrup or chocolate on everything, including spaghetti, which creates some fun moments with his new half brother, Michael. Buddy’s love interest, Jovie, is played with spirit and spunk by Maggie Anderson. Initially suspicious of his ulterior motives, Jovie is soon won over by his joyous spirit and they are soon ice skating together in Rockefeller Center.
Buddy’s father, Walter Hobbs, is not a Scrooge, he’s just a nice guy who has been overwhelmed by the corporate world. He runs a publishing company but is unable to come up with a suitable holiday story to suit the suits upstairs. When Buddy comes along, he just doesn’t have the time or patience to deal with him, even when a DNA report proves that he is Buddy’s father by a college fling 30 years before. Scott Withers plays Walter with a dark cloud over his head, but he is a good guy who got locked into a bad world. (“Christmas always gets in the way,” he moans.)
Gabrielle Mirabella is excellent as Walter’s soft-hearted but city-savvy wife Emily, while Harper Brady is fabulous as their 10-year-old son Michael – a shaggy-haired Bobby Brady who can match anyone in the cast as a dancer and singer.
In addition to Big, there are smatterings of other holiday shows in Elf. Like Miracle on 34th Street, much of the action takes place in Macy’s Department Store, where Buddy happens to find a job decorating the store. A funny situation occurs when Buddy encounters the department store Santa and exposes him as a fraud, saying he knows the real McCoy. As in Annie, Buddy is an orphan, and he and his father, a Daddy Warbucks one-percenter, end up bonding in a pie-in-the-sky version of New York City.
In one of the funnier scenes, a bevy of out-of-work Santa temps (some of them spouting Yiddishisms) meet at the Chung Fu Palace restaurant on Christmas Eve to sing “Nobody Cares About Santa.”
Samuel Bagala leads a smashingly good big band. The candy cane sets are whisked around the stage like magic and are both colorful and utilitarian. Santa’s toy shop is especially vibrant. Credit to Christine Peters for the scenic design, Gregg Barnes for the brilliant costumes, and Connor Gallagher for the whimsical, energetic choreography, which includes actors effortlessly “ice skating” with in-line roller skates. Elf is briskly directed by Sam Scalamoni.
Elf is an unbridled delight of a show – take the whole family. As Santa says, “You’ll be freaky happy.”
Elf plays a limited engagement at the Fred Kavli Theatre (Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza) through Sunday, November 22. For dates and showtimes, plus a link to their website, see the VC On Stage Calendar.