The two stars for this review of “Elf — The Musical” have almost nothing to do with the script, score or design of this stage musical about a human raised as an elf by Santa.
They are instead allotted to the Drury Lane Theatre cast’s valiant delivery of material that is unoriginal, underwhelming and a cheap, platitudinous attempt to cash in on holiday cliches, all while purporting to gin up the true spirit of Christmas.
Inspired by the 2003 movie written by David Berenbaum, “Elf — The Musical,” helmed by director/choreographer Lynne Kurdziel-Formato, follows the adventures of Buddy the titular elf (Ben Dow). Raised at the North Pole, Buddy figures out he’s human after realizing he’s much taller than his co-workers. He then travels from Santa’s land to New York City (upper Manhattan) to find his real father.
‘Elf — The Musical’
The movie is a 90-minute charmer. The musical (with a generic score by Matthew Skylar, a cheesier-than-a-pizzeria dumpster of a book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, and lazy, banal lyrics by Chad Beguelin) is a bloated, two-and-a-half-hour slog that’s all sparkle and no substance.
At least, it would be all sparkle had Drury Lane decided to invest in an actual set (Kristen Martino, or more of the costumes (Rachel Boylan), some that appear to be a step above the remnants of a post-holiday, half-off craft store clearance bin.
After leaving Santa (A.D. Weaver) and arriving in New York, Buddy finds his father, the grinchly, Christmas-hating Walter Hobbs (Sean Fortunato) who is busy neglecting his ever-patient wife Emily (Melody Hobbs) and son Michael (Gabriel Solis opening night, Elliott Mayeda at some performances).
It falls to Buddy to teach all he encounters the true meaning of Christmas — which, in the genius lyrics of “Elf” is “Sparklejollytwinklejingley.” (Walter’s anti-sparkle skepticism is balm in a wasteland of glittery treacle.)
Dow’s Buddy is tireless as he plays a 30-year-old with the demeanor of a profoundly sheltered 6-year-old. In the movie, there’s a genuine warmth to that innocence. Here, it just seems contrived no matter how much spritely innocence Dow pours into the role.
There are two solid numbers, thankfully. The first is the Act 2 opener “Nobody Cares About Santa,” wherein a corps of jaded department store Santas sings of rotten kids and jaded adults. When the final Santa sashayed away, I yearned for an encore.
The second one follows immediately, when Buddy’s deeply underwritten non-elf girlfriend Jovie (Lydia Burke) unleashes her spectacular vocals with “Never Fall in Love (With an Elf).” Burke’s got a voice that reaches the sky and a presence like the sun. But, for all the song’s protestations, Jovie has little to do here but wait around for Buddy the man-child to engage with her.
The show’s dance corps also shines in a tap finale, but what could be a real whiz-bang eye-popper sinks due to under-population. The stage looks half-filled much of the time.
The set is a far cry from the richly detailed environments Drury Lane has created in the past. It’s essentially a series of big, blank, flat screens mounted upstage that host projections (by Anthony Churchill) that make 1969’s TV classic “Frosty the Snowman” look like a Pixar masterpiece.
Those screens purportedly show the iconic New York City locales where Buddy’s adventures take him: Central Park, the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, Tavern on the Green, Santa’s house at the Macy’s department store. (I visited Santa in the Manhattan Macy’s back in the day. This rendition of that magical place is as Malibu is to Malibu Barbie. The others are of a kind.)
“Elf — The Musical” purports to be about believing in Christmas like you did when you were a small child. But the story is like an empty gift box covered in cheap wrapping paper.
Not even Buddy’s near-miraculous, one-elf, two-bells bell concert can save this take on Christmas.