SALT LAKE CITY — During a pivotal scene in the second act of Elf: The Musical, Buddy—a human raised by elves at the North Pole—finds his girlfriend Jovie, after she had waited hours for him to go on a date that he forgot about. As Buddy explains why he was late and Jovie talks about how hurt her feelings are, both characters reveal how innocent they are. It was one of many surprisingly touching moments in Elf, a musical that is not merely another soulless, mechanical musical adaptation of a successful Hollywood movie.
Based on the 2003 movie starring Will Ferrell, Elf: The Musical tells the story of Buddy, a human who accidentally was carried to the North Pole by Santa. After 30 years of believing that he was an elf, Buddy learns that he is actually a human and goes to New York City to meet his real father. The story is mostly a fish-out-of-water comedy as Buddy adapts to the bustling, cynical city, finds a girlfriend, and teaches his Scrooge-like father—named Walter Hobbs—to believe in Santa Claus and grow closer to his family.
Director Dan Knechtges’s balanced the zaniness of the comedy with the quiet moments that were necessary for the characters to be developed. For example, within the first ten minutes, the frenetic “Happy All the Time” opening number was contrasted soon after with the touching “World’s Greatest Dad,” which not only had a lilting melody (composed by Matthew Sklar) and tender lyrics (written by Chad Beguelin), but also a gorgeous stage picture with Buddy in front of a star field, walking among trees under John Lasiter’s multicolored lights. I also appreciated how Knechtges directed his ensemble so that they established the location and mood of scenes quickly and efficiently, such as in the office (which was reminiscent of workplaces in How to Succeed in Business or Thoroughly Modern Millie) and the North Pole.
Liza Gennaro’s choreography was pleasantly diverse, with pieces that seem inspired by traditional musical theatre (“In the Way”), Bob Fosse (“Nobody Cares About Santa”), ballet (“A Christmas Song”), and more. But Gennaro’s triumph is “The Story of Buddy,” a rousing number that was so irresistibly entertaining that I turned off my critic’s brain and gave myself wholly to the cast. Gennaro’s choreography for “Nobody Cares About Santa” was also noteworthy because its depressing mood matched Buddy’s depressed mental state. On the other hand, I thought that the ensemble’s faux ice skating at the Rockefeller Plaza scene was distracting because of its randomness, which made the choreography seem unconnected to the music.
Quinn Vanantwerp’s performance as Buddy the Elf was entrancing for every moment he was on the stage. I found Vanantwerp’s performance strongest when he was showing Buddy’s vulnerability, such as when he was kicked out of his father’s life. But Vanantwerp also was able to meet the broad comedy of the play, and I found many of his joke deliveries were hilarious (such as his reaction to the word “futon”). Martin Vidnovic‘s performance of Buddy’s father, Walter, was interesting in that he created a Scrooge character, but prevented it from becoming a caricature. Walter doesn’t, for example, hate Christmas. It just merely gets “In the Way.” The serious businessman was a believable character in the first apartment scene and was very sympathetic when his boss yells at him. However, I wish Vidnovic had provided more variety in his performance; I found his voice and mannerisms to be too consistent. For example, his affect was the same when he was kicking Buddy out of his life as when he was trying to save his job.
However, Tanesha Gary’s performance of Emily Hobbs, Walter’s wife, was the strongest in the cast. Gary ensured in every scene that Emily’s strength was apparent, and it was easy for me to see that Emily was the force keeping the Hobbs family together. This strength made it obvious why she was able to let Buddy stay in the family apartment. Gary also had ensured that Emily had a genuine mother-son relationship (best shown in “I’ll Believe in You” and in the last apartment scene) with Michael, played by Jaedin Clark. This made the family-centered message of the play more touching and believable.
Libby Servais’s performance of Jovie, Buddy’s girlfriend, was another commendable aspect of Elf. Her “Never Fall in Love (with an Elf)” was powerful and reminiscent of the classic eleven o’clock numbers from the golden age of musicals. I also found Jovie to be relatable and an endearing character, which was a welcomed contrast from the catatonic and bland performance in the movie from Zooey Deschanel. In fact, Servais and Vanantwerp were so enjoyable that never once did I find myself yearning for the actors who played their roles in the film (unlike, for example, the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels tour that visited Salt Lake City in 2007).
In addition to the actors in the main roles in the play, many performers in the cast in the smaller roles were impressive standouts. Allyson Kaye Daniel converted me into a fan with a single note that she belted in “The Story of Buddy.” The charisma that she displayed in the earlier office scenes was also noticeable, and it doesn’t surprise me that she is the understudy for Gary. Paul Aguirre was a particularly funny department store manager, especially during “Sparklejollytwinklejingley.” Finally, Utah favorites like Rhett Guter, William Cooper Howell, and Latoya Rhodes compared very favorably to the impressive crop of New York-based actors in the cast.
Unquestionably, I enjoyed Elf: The Musical, as my exuberant review shows. However, it is important to note that there’s a lot of saccharine material in Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan‘s script. Indeed, there is so much cheesiness that Elf: The Musical is the sort of show that people who hate musicals imagine that all musicals are like. So, for people who like (or can at least put up with) musicals, Elf is a treasured holiday treat.