If the foregoing makes it sound like I'm conflicted about "Elf," that's because I am. On the one hand, its shamelessly manipulative attempts to play on the audience's heartstrings feel a bit crass. On the other hand (where it's better to have fingers than toes), its message that the real meaning of Christmas is found in generosity, love, and family is so clearly right that criticizing it feels rather like scolding a misbehaving puppy. It's easy to do, but you feel like a jerk in the process.
For the benefit of those of you who, like me, have never seen the original Will Ferrell vehicle, "Elf" is, according to the official press release, the tale of Buddy, "a young orphan child who mistakenly crawls into Santa's bag of gifts and is transported back to the North Pole. Unaware that he is actually human, Buddy's enormous size and poor toy-making abilities cause him to face the truth. With Santa's permission, Buddy embarks on a journey to New York City to find his birth father, discover his true identity, and help New York remember the true meaning of Christmas."
What the press release doesn't say is that even though there are nine performers in named roles and fifteen in the ensemble, "Elf" is in many ways a one-man show. The character of Buddy is in eleven of the seventeen musical numbers, including all of the far too numerous dance sequences, and in nearly every scene. It's an insanely demanding role that calls for a strong singer and dancer who can radiate massive amounts of charisma and charm. It needs a performer who can work hard and still appear to be enjoying himself immensely.
This production has the amazing Matt Kopec, who does all of that brilliantly. His Buddy is so immediately likeable—indeed, loveable—that the character's absurd naiveté feels credible. Mr. Kopec's superhuman energy was a wonder to behold. When he was on stage—that is, for most of the evening—he made me forget that the show itself was ultimately just so much commercial yard goods. He's a treasure.
He has a solid supporting cast as well. Substituting for Matthew Alan Smith on opening night, Kevin Rockower was amusingly beleaguered as Buddy's dad Walter and Jane Bruce was winning as Walter's wife Emily, trying to cope with the discovery that he has a six foot tall elf as a stepson. As Walter and Jane's son Michael, Tyler Altomari proved that child actors can be just as polished as adults. And Gordon Gray is a charmingly avuncular Santa Claus.
Kate Hennies showed a nice vulnerability as Jovie, the Macy's employee who falls for Buddy. She made the most of the clever lyrics in "Never Fall in Love," her big second act solo, and there was believable chemistry between her and Buddy. Clyde Voce had a couple of great comic turns as the Macy's store manager and a disillusioned department store Santa. Jacqueline Grabois hit all the right notes, comic and musical, as the wisecracking Deb and Kyle McIntire was appropriately nasty as Walter's Scroogish boss, Mr. Greenway.
That fifteen-member ensemble I mentioned earlier deserves a big round of applause as well. Portraying everything from elves (dancing on their knees, like the prince in the "Shrek" musical) to ice skaters in Rockefeller Plaza (dancing on roller skates) to sad sack chain store Santas, they displayed remarkable versatility and boundless energy.
The songs by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin are essentially generic musical theatre, mostly reminding me of Andrew Byrne's satirical "A Contemporary Musical Theatre Song." Andrew Meehan and Bob Martin's book, manipulative though it may be, conveys a message of family and fellowship that's as true as it is trite so, as noted earlier, it's hard to really dislike it—although both writers have done much better work elsewhere. And the production overall is glossy, colorful, and fast paced enough to provide a pleasant if somewhat over-long evening's entertainment. The amplified sound was far too loud, at least from our seats in row L of the orchestra, but that seems to be the norm these days as we all slowly go deaf.
So, bottom line, "Elf the Musical" is a pleasant bit of holiday fluff. My goddaughter, who is a great fan of the original film, thought the show missed some of the whimsy and charm of the original, particularly in the final scene in which an outburst of Christmas spirit from the citizens of New York City powers Santa's sleigh. But her nine-year-old son enjoyed it, so those of you looking for some theatrical entertainment for the whole family might enjoy a two and one-half hour visit (including intermission) with Buddy the Elf.
"Elf the Musical" is at the Fox in Grand Center through December 29th. For more information: fabulousfox.com.