“I like smiling. Smiling’s my favorite,” says Buddy the Elf in the new musical currently playing at the Al Hirschfeld theater. The latest film to theater adaptation to hit Broadway is a thick and syrupy dose of holiday cheer, not unlike the maple syrup that Buddy pours onto everything he eats. But, in small doses, maple syrup and holiday musicals can both be enjoyable treats.
Directed by Casey Nicholaw and with a book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin and songs by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, Elf remains faithful to the beloved 2003 film that starred Will Ferrell. Buddy, who was orphaned as a baby, crawled into Santa’s toy bag and was raised by elves at the North Pole. When he reaches the age of 30 and is much taller than all of his fellow elves, he learns he is human and sets out to New York to find his actual father, Walter Hobbs (an appropriately gruff Mark Jacoby). Family reconciliations and holiday cheer ensue in this predictable, but entertaining show.
Sebastian Arcelus is ideally cast as Buddy, giving a spirited and sunny performance. In a role originated on film by Will Ferrell, Arecelus has some painfully curled shoes to fill and wisely, he does not imitate Ferrell but instead presents his own interpretation of Buddy. The seemingly inexhaustible Arcelus, who is in almost every scene of the show, demonstrates his triple threat skills singing, dancing, acting and even ice skating throughout the show. He is the heart of the production and manages to maintain the levels of excitement and exuberance necessary as well as achieving some impressive comedic moments.
Jacoby plays Buddy’s father, and Beth Leavel is impressively heartfelt as his stepmother. Matthew Gumley plays Buddy’s younger brother, giving an impressive performance that is neither cute nor cloying – an achievement for any child actor, but especially in a holiday show. Gumley and Leavel share two mother-and-son duets, one sad and one excited, that are surprisingly touching. Amy Spanger gives an appropriately sarcastic performance as Jovie, Buddy’s love interest, belting her heart out during her one song, “Never Fall In Love With An Elf,” and Valerie Wright as Buddy’s father’s sarcastic secretary steals several scenes. Rounding out the cast is George Wendt as Santa, clearly having a fine time onstage.
While the stage adaptation does not achieve the same level of sarcasm that the film did, pointing a sly finger at holiday entertainment and the idea of the holiday spirit, it does provide some laughs here and there, especially when referencing global warming, Charlie Sheen or even the seemingly inevitable gift of a holiday Snuggie. (Santa keeps his naughty and nice list on an iPad in this show). But this production is trying to be what the movie was making fun of and the heartfelt and sincere moments override any sarcasm in the script. At times, the sweetness becomes too much – does Buddy’s father actually realize he is an absentee dad that quickly? And do we really need another speech about the real meaning of Christmas? – But in a cold holiday season like this one, maybe a dose of sweetness is just what the doctor ordered.