Back to show

3 Stars! 'Elf' opens holiday theatrical assault

Christmas 2015 arrived for me with a jolt, one day after Halloween, in the shape of Roger Mueller. As the actor and patriarch of a stable of musical theater stars barreled into the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire on a tricked-out golf cart in the guise of Santa Claus — despite it being close to 70 degrees outside — well, let's just say I could feel the turning, turning of the years. Buddy the Elf is here for your holiday pleasure, good people of the suburbs, ready or not!

Since Christmas shows are like catnip for producers — storable and repeatable — when they work, there's a perennial interest in creating new traditions, as the oxymoronically immune marketing people like to say. Of all the movies-into-holiday-musicals rolled out over the last few years, I've only really liked "A Christmas Story" (which opens soon at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora) and, to a lesser but not inconsiderable extent, "Elf," a show that got mixed reviews on Broadway in 2010 but redeemed itself in my eyes during a 2013 national tour that was packed with crackling Broadway character actors who brought out the best in the witty book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin. The Marriott has snagged the first local rights to the show — and the redoubtable director Marc Robin has turned in a very genial and likable production that's fully competitive with that previous tour and, in places, rather more textured and warm.

Although based on the 2003 Will Ferrell movie, and concerned with a human who grew up elf at the North Pole and has a certain emptiness inside, "Elf" is part of that genre of shows desiring to rehabilitate the struggling American family. Like the stage musical version of "Mary Poppins," "Elf" is about a dad who works too much, has forgotten the importance of his long-suffering loved ones, and the desirability of a little goofiness at Christmas. In "Mary Poppins," it's the nanny with lessons to impart. In "Elf," the teacher is a hitherto unknown son from far away (the product of a college fling with a now-deceased young woman). The moral of the show is stop working and enjoy the holiday with the family. So if there's a workaholic in your household, this is the ideal show to make that "slow down" point. And you can do so with time to spare!

Alex Goodrich, an actor who occupies that young-Tom-Hanks niche and has established himself as the No. 1 goof in Chicago musical theater (his previous competition, Rod Thomas, has graduated to playing the likes of Javert, for goodness sake). Goodrich has a lot more discipline as a performer now, and his Buddy is thoroughly charming — sweet, guileless, just like Hanks in "Big," which surely was the model for the character. His appeal is matched by Dara Cameron, who is approaching the peak of her powers and plays Jovie, the cute, lonely-heart love interest who falls for this man-child. It's a tough assignment for an actor, given that Buddy looks a whole lot like a creep for much of the show, and Cameron pulls it off beautifully, without making her character look so needy as to be, well, totally unhinged. It's a delicate balance, Elf-love, so good for her.

Add in Kevin Gudahl, a big-hearted grump, and Mueller's backslapping Santa, and you've got a warm bath of bonhomie. The show's best moment, though, occurs in a duet between Susie McMonagle, playing the Elf's kind stepmom, and Cam Ezell, playing Buddy's stepbrother. McMonagle clearly is delighted to be paired with a kid who can really sing, and the two rock it out deliciously on "There is a Santa Claus." And don't you forget.

The Matthew Sklar score (lyrics are by Chad Beguelin) to "Elf" is not exactly overstuffed with timeless ditties, but it's serviceable and you'll likely leave humming "A Christmas Song." Hopefully you won't leave singing all the product placement in the show — a crucial piece of information, easily deliverable by phone arrives via FedEx, and there's much talk of Etch A Sketch and wait, I'm falling into their trap. Actually, some of the stuff in "Elf" is wandering close to its sell-by date — Dr. Phil and Al Gore don't deliver the zingers they did in 2010. And don't get me started about the plot device that requires a publisher to deliver a children's book with a Dec. 24 copy deadline, without anyone actually saying that the book is for next year (or, more likely given that business, the year after that). Worrying too much about details like that can get you on Santa's naughty list.

So, enjoyed your first holiday review of 2015? Got the snowblower primed?

Heck, welcome Yule! "Elf" is a solid start to the season of jollity. Set designer Thomas M. Ryan has pushed the Marriott boat out in terms of decking the theater's famous circle with light and color and Robin, doing his typical double duty as director and choreographer, trots out a moving vista or two of the archetypal urban vision of the holidays, with a few digressions to the North Pole.

In the Broadway rulebook, the ensemble members all are young and of a similar physical type. So it was in "Elf." But, taking advantage of the willingness of top-drawer, local, leading-lady talent like Johanna McKenzie Miller and Susan Moniz to play smaller roles and thus spend the holidays with their own families, Robin steps away from such artificiality. Actually, that's the thing I liked best of all about this "Elf," and the version of New York he finds in suburban Chicago.