SALT LAKE CITY — Continuing Broadway’s quest to turn every family-friendly intellectual property into a stage musical, Elf premiered in the Big Apple in 2010 for a short, successful holiday run of 57 shows. Its source material was the greatest and most beloved Christmas film of the 21st century, the iconic 2003 Will Ferrell vehicle.
Does the stage adaptation have reason to exist? After seeing Pioneer Theatre Company’s production, the cynical critic in me says absolutely not. However, as a passable and vaguely family-friendly way to spend a December evening, you could do worse.
The idea of making a musical out of Elf has a lot of potential. The movie’s script and premise are as good as any holiday show since A Christmas Story. The problem is, much like School of Rock, which came out around the same time and has also undergone the Broadway treatment, much of the success came from the singular performance by one of the best comedians of our times—it’s hard to imagine anyone else replacing Will Ferrell in the role.
The result is a colorful, fun musical that unfortunately doesn’t justify its existence or leave much of a mark. While all the good scenes were there, including the spaghetti syrup breakfast and classic quotes like, “You sit on a throne of lies!,” and, “I’m in love! I’m in love! And I don’t care who knows it!,” the comedy gold didn’t always translate.
The actors and director could garner more laughs with different performances. Perhaps if Buddy engaged the audience more or upped the delivery of his lines, the comedy would hit harder. That said, there are still laughs to be had and the actors are uniformly good at their craft—which is expected of equity professionals with Broadway experience.
Buddy the Elf was played by Max Chernin, whose Broadway credits include Bright Star and Sunday in the Park with George in addition to the insane only-in-New-York-City marketing stunt Skittles Commercial: The Musical and Amazon’s delightful show Mozart in the Jungle. Chernin portrayed the naivety and positivity necessary for the role.
The central plot revolves around Buddy’s budding relationship with his birth dad, the scrooge-like Walter Hobbs, played with aplomb by Christopher Gurr, whose impressive Broadway gigs include Cats, Tuck Everlasting, Kinky Boots and Amazing Grace. In a wrinkle from the movie, Hobbs isn’t the big bad of the show—that would be his boss, a new character named Mr. Greenway (Howard Kaye).
The Hobbs family, completed by PTC vet Mary Fanning Driggs as Emily and Grant Wescott as Michael, gave a solid comedic and dramatic core to the show. Wescott in particular was often my favorite actor on stage. After similarly impressing as Billy in Tuacahn’s School of Rock this summer, Wescott is certainly a young actor to keep an eye on and shows a lot of promise if he decides to pursue theater professionally.
Also standing out among the cast was equity actor Carlita Victoria as receptionist Deb. Victoria’s funny, natural, and confident performance was so true to life that she kept reminding me of former coworkers. Buddy’s Macy’s coworker and love interest Jovie was performed by Antionette Comer. Despite the character being given a song, Jovie sadly doesn’t still have much character development and disappears for about a half hour in the second act. While Comer has a spectacular voice, she could also be more personable, emotive, and engaging.
The show is peppered with quick pop culture references to Netflix, Squid Game, etc. which garnered some laughs, even if they were the mark of a musical not quite hitting its own. These references were mainly delivered by Jason Simon as the gruff, jaded, and sincerely un-jolly Santa Claus. The idea of a cynical Santa is so overdone, it simply doesn’t land any more—a new direction for the character would be welcome.
The show is competently directed by Alan Muraoka, fresh off directing Utah Shakespeare Company’s Gold Mountain, which closed less than two weeks ago. The lovely snow globe-inspired set design was by James Kronzer, and musical director Tom Griffin directed an impeccable seventeen-piece orchestra in the pit.
The book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin sticks close to the movie, with two small improvements: a clever scene where Buddy plays a Salvation Army bell like an entire bell choir and the happy North Pole ending with the whole family decked out in festive costumes by K.L. Alberts. Music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics from Chad Beguelin did their thing, with several memorable melodies.
The show thankfully ejected the shower scene and offensive businessman dwarf character in the film, although it injected a fair amount of sexual jokes and profanity (much is made about Buddy wanting to bed Jovie), which may have parents questioning whether to bring their ninnymuggins to the show.
To sum, Elf: The Musical is an enjoyable musical competently produced and performed by excellent actors. While it’s neither ho ho hilarious or ho ho horrible, it does offer a fun evening—even if I would personally reach for the DVD of Elf on the shelf.