REVIEW BY ANTHONY CHASE
ELF THE MUSICAL
Review by ANTHONY CHASE
There are occasions when a mechanical cliché of a show is just the fodder needed to allow a bunch of abundantly talented people to create holiday magic. This is the case with Elf the Musical, intentionally grade “B” material, with a sly book by Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan; generic Broadway music by Matthew Sklar; and lyrics by Chad Beguelin, melded into a grade “A” parody, and belted out of the park by a crew of irreverent zanies up at MusicalFare.
The magic ingredient of Elf the Musical, based on the beloved 2003 movie starring Will Ferrell, is that it never takes itself seriously. Quite the opposite, this is actually a deft and clever sendup of the dozens of very special Christmas specials trotted out onto network television from the 1960s through the 1980s, largely by Rankin/Bass Productions. Think of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), The Little Drummer Boy (1968), Frosty the Snowman (1969), Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970), and The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974). These were simple and saccharine stop-action animated films starring some of the most recognizable vocal talents of the day: Burl Ives, Greer Garson, Jimmy Durante, Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, and Shirley Booth among them. Even Ethel Merman got her chance with that cinematic classic, Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July, in which she belts out “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Chicken Today, Feathers Tomorrow.”
Whereas the “Elf” movie was entirely family friendly and actually very close to the spirit of the Rankin/Bass shows, this musical stage version has the added virtue of a comic edge for grownups that will soar happily above the kids’ heads. For my generation, this is therapeutic; I can’t describe the damage done by songs like "The Snow Miser Song" and "The Heat Miser Song" from The Year Without a Santa Claus, which my brother-in-law insists upon hearing again, every year at Christmas. Not to mention the aforementioned “Chicken Today, Feathers Tomorrow” by Merman. At MusicalFare, Elf the Musical is an opportunity to turn the genre of the hackneyed but endearing Christmas special on its head, on this occasion, with an inspired performance by Chris J. Handley as Buddy the Elf.
Buddy is a human who, as a baby, climbed into Santa’s bag one Christmas Eve and was whisked back to the North Pole, where he was raised as an elf. Now an adult, it was just a matter of time before Buddy figured out that he was more than merely the elf who grew and grew and grew. Santa sends Buddy back to New York City to find his biological father, children’s book publisher, Walter Hobbs, who, naturally, turns out to be a modern-day Scrooge.
I give nothing away by revealing that all the ills of Buddy’s lost family and of New York, that city without pity, will be healed through the spirit of Christmas. Along the way, however, we are treated to some very cheeky and refreshingly cynical adult comedy. Among my favorites is when Buddy’s new stepmother, long-suffering and no-nonsense Emily, played with steady vitality and un-killable optimism by Jennifer Mysliwy, explains to stepbrother Michael, that much as we all love Buddy, the manically cheerful man-elf has a few screws loose. There is also the moment when a burned-out Christmas Santa explains to Buddy, recently thrown out onto the street by his uncaring Dad, that fighting with your family is what the holidays are all about. In the same scene, a chorus line of downtrodden fake Santas bump and grind their way through “Nobody Cares about Santa,” an outrageous and irresistible parody of the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes.
Nicholas Lama evokes the Christmas specials of yesteryear as the narrative voice of Santa Claus, establishing the tone with his pitch perfect rendition of the jolly old elf. This is a Santa who is cheerful, but harbors no illusions. He resents losing the services of his reindeer after complaints from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – “Thanks PETA!” -- and he holds little hope that humanity will sustain the spirit of Christmas, now required to power his sleigh, for too much longer. Lama’s skeptical narration is priceless.
The main attraction, however, is Buddy the Elf. Tapping into the deranged exuberance of his elfin character (sometimes literally) Mr. Handley gives an unflaggingly earnest performance that thrusts him into the pantheon of such great Buffalo clowns as Jimmy Janowski, Charmagne Chi, Jenn Stafford, and Chris Standart. He tackles each musical number with all the sparkle of Ann Miller atop a giant soup can, and despite his unrelenting exuberance, he never wears out his welcome.
The foil for Buddy is Walter, the biological father who never knew that Buddy existed and who is none too pleased by the news. Louis Colaiacovo, provides a complete contrast to the father he created in Big Fish at Second Generation Theatre, here embodying an entirely different kind of paternal jerk. Not to worry, the spirit of Christmas and the relentlessness of Buddy will prevail as Walter discovers that it is never too late to grow.
Jennifer Mysliwy helps navigate the divide between son and father as Mrs. Hobbs, and has the opportunity to belt a few numbers and embrace the joy of Christmas along the way. Mysliwy gives a self-assured and polished performance, confidently commanding the stage whenever she appears, inspiring that critical question, where the hell has she been for the past couple of decades? Her bio in the program hints that she has been raising a family with actor Brian Mysliwy, and that she has now gotten time off for good behavior. Whatever the reason, it is a pleasure to see her back. She’s terrific. Mysliwy is joined by appealing young Johnny Kiener, giving a winning performance, singing, dancing, and landing all his laughs as Buddy’s newly discovered step-brother, Michael.
Stevie Jackson again plays “the girlfriend,” as Buddy’s jaded department store
co-worker and girlfriend, Jovie. (She also played the girlfriend in Big Fish). This time she’s a woman with disappointment in her past, who is lured into the miracle of Christmas by Buddy. Her heart-rending rendition of “Never Fall in Love (with an elf)” is hilarious.
MusicalFare has assembled a first-rate ensemble of actors, many of whom have carried shows of their own in the past: Melinda Capeles as Tiara; Adrienne Ricchiazzi Cummings; Chris Cummings as Chadwick; Rheanna Gallego; Jake Hayes as Manager; Bob Mazierski as Greenway; Dan Urtz; Michael Wachowiak as Matthews / Charlie; Alexandria Watts as Deb. Each gets a moment, or several, to shine (and to tap dance).
Michael Walline’s direction and choreography are face-paced, smart, and perfectly modulated. This is good news for a show that runs a little long. Walline showcases the formidable talent of the cast handsomely. Music Direction by Theresa Quinn is spirited, Christmassy, and melodiously adept.
I loved Chris Cavanagh’s set, which is as charming as a department store Christmas window, augmented by props by Emily Powrie and Madison Sullivan. Kari Drozd’s playful costumes are equally enchanting, and enhanced by hair, wigs, and make-up design by Susan Drozd.
After its sold out run, which concludes on December 22nd, I would be very surprised if MusicalFare does not attempt to remount this show as a holiday tradition. It is certainly a welcome addition to the abundant Christmas offerings we see on Buffalo’s stages, and one of the best in memory.