Courtesy of the Croswell Opera House
In “Elf: The Musical” - now playing at The Croswell Opera House - which is based on the classic Will Ferrell comedy of the same name, there’s a song so infectious and toe-tapping, I’ve found myself singing it in repetition. It’s called “The Story of Buddy” and it comes during Act Two when the script by Thomas Meehan & Bob Martin is running on fumes. Because up until that point, the songs - clearly designed to cash in on the success of the 2003 film and expand on the Buddy The Elf story-line - sadly aren’t that memorable. Then again, “Elf: The Musical” isn’t trying to be groundbreaking. It’s manufactured to produce happiness in little kids trying to see Santa and Buddy save the day from Christmas naysayers. And I can report from those little beady eyes sitting around me during the packed opening night performance, those kids were pumped.
Most of that wide-eyed enthusiasm starts with the pitch-perfect casting of Steven Kiss in the titular Elf role, who bursts on stage with the kind of manic and crazy energy required to fill these big shoes. As Buddy, Kiss shoulders this nearly 2-hour, 25 minute presentation with all the Christmas cheer needed for a lifetime. Though the musical lacks the magic of the film, Kiss certainly could give Ferrell a run for his money. The main issue is the stage version loses focus on the innocent, bedtime story sensibility of the movie about Buddy, an orphan human raised at the North Pole by Santa’s elves, who as an adult ventures to New York City to look for his father. Familiar characters and locales are left intact (namely the department store) but some parts of the main plot are altered and a slew of adult-pitched innuendos are confusingly tossed in.
Fortunately, The Croswell Opera House has assembled a crack team to elevate the script’s obvious shortcomings. As the director, Debra Rose Calabrese has a clear sense of Christmas enchantment that’s evident from the start, and I love the creativity in how the elves at the North Pole all move in rhythm on their knees during the opening scenes, allowing Kiss to tower over them as Buddy. Of course, Kiss is the main proprietor of fun here, navigating the wild trenches of NYC with a childlike sense of wonder, often amazed at how a lone hot dog cart on the street is the “World's Best Hot Dog.” He giddily leads the charge on songs “Sparklejollywinklejingley” (say that fives times fast) and “A Christmas Song.” Which, as their titles suggest, inject a silver of cheer into the mass audience. Buddy glides through a Manhattan office, a department store Santa Land and more as Dave Nelms seamless and eye catching scenery moves on and off the stage, with enormous and vibrant projections by Crosby Slube filling out the backdrop. This, of course, is all bolstered by Wynn Marsh’s on the nose musical direction and lively orchestra pit.
Vocally, the cast of nine principles and 23 ensemble members all bring life to the somewhat disposable tunes with seventh grader Luke Barden making a huge impression as Buddy’s step brother Michael. Alisa Bauer and John Bacarella hit the right notes as Buddy’s stepmom Emily and real-life father Walter. Additionally, Meg Grezak is an absolute blast (and hilarious) as the cat-obsessed assistant Deb, and Nick Brown as the Manager of the department store gets big laughs in his brief, but memorable stage time. The only character featured who gets a strong demotion from the motion picture is Jovi - played with heart by a strong Kateln Lesle Levering. In the film, the character was played by Zooey Deschanel and left an impact on the plot while being a major romantic interest for Buddy, whereas in the stage version it would seem that Martin and Meehan lose the character in the shuffle. Another glaring omission is Papa Elf, Buddy’s foster father who was perfectly played by a soft-spoken Bob Newhart in the film.
Still, that’s no fault of the Croswell who manage to pull out all the technical and costuming stops to make “Elf” worth taking the whole family to see. After all, this is a story about the spirit of the holiday season, and the thrill of believing in Santa (whose sleigh is now operated solely on those who think Santa exists and not powered by reindeer: “Thanks PETA” Santa quips). At the end of the day, if Kiss and this delightful cast don’t fill you with holiday cheer, I’m not sure what will.
Bring on the tap-dancing elves!
IF YOU GO:
The Croswell’s production of “Elf: The Musical” continues through December 8th at The Croswell Opera House. To purchase tickets and to view showtimes please click here.