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Marriott stages rapturous regional premiere of 'Elf'

Be wary about efforts to call the musical "Elf" a "new holiday classic." It's a bit premature, and some of the jokes in the 2010 Broadway adaptation of the hit 2003 Will Ferrell film are already showing their age.

But Marriott Theatre's joyous production more than makes up for any of the material's shortcomings. In fact, director/choreographer Marc Robin and his creative crew have crafted a show that far surpasses the mediocre national tour that played Chicago in 2013. It also makes a more convincing case for "Elf" itself as a celebration of Christmas cheer for our cynical times.

"Elf" focuses on 30-year-old Buddy (Alex Goodrich), who accidentally stowed away as a baby aboard Santa Claus' magical sleigh. Raised as an elf at the North Pole, Buddy's size and slow toy-making skills eventually become liabilities. So Santa (Roger Mueller) sends Buddy to meet up with his long-lost biological father, Walter Hobbs (Kevin Gudahl), and his family in modern-day New York City.

The rest of "Elf" is a classic fish-out-of-water comic scenario with childlike Buddy spreading jolly Christmas cheer 24/7 to a parade of jaded New Yorkers. With the dialogue, you can sometimes feel the strain of book writers Thomas Meehan ("The Producers") and Bob Martin ("The Drowsy Chaperone") to keep things clean -- especially when the humor could have been edgier with regard to Buddy's naive exposure to adult life.

Composer Matthew Skylar and lyricist Chad Beguelin are on more secure ground mixing songs into the "Elf" template because the Christmas carol-loving Buddy is forever ready to sing. Not every song feels organic, especially non-Buddy numbers like "There is a Santa Claus" sung by his stepmother, Emily (Susie McMonagle), and half-brother Michael (Cam Ezell) or the scheduling song "In the Way" led by the bemused secretary Deb (Susan Moniz). Ultimately, though, there are far more catchy hits than misses.

What truly elevates "Elf" at the Marriott is Robin's inventive and eye-popping staging. Production numbers burst forth with engrossing fun like the tap-happy "Sparklejollytwinklejingley" set at Macy's department store. Others, such as the garishly bright "Happy All the Time," fill the stage with candy-colored confections -- including Nancy Missimi's outlandish elfin costumes, Thomas M. Ryan's whimsical North Pole set pieces and Sally Weiss' cavalcade of amazing props. Jesse Klug also dazzles with his LED-heavy lighting design that utilizes every color of the rainbow.

As for casting, Robin has been blessed all around for "Elf."

Alex Goodrich is perfectly cast as the ever-endearing and ready-to-please Buddy. Audience members revel in Goodrich's every moment of childlike wonder and blunder as Buddy, and his cheer is readily infectious.

Robin uses the intimacy of the Marriott to keep everyone else grounded and real around the larger-than-life Buddy. Gudahl, in particular, is wonderful at showing how a hardened Walter Hobbs initially resists and then embraces Buddy's onslaught of love and happiness. Other standouts include Dara Cameron as Buddy's cynical love interest Jovie and James Earl Jones II as the bossy Macy's store manager.

Speaking of Macy's, it's just one of the show's instances of corporate name-dropping. Yet, even that aspect of the show fits. While reminding audiences of the commercialization of Christmas, "Elf" also encourages us to tap into Buddy's youthful love of the holidays.

So don't miss the chance to see Marriott's production of "Elf." It's a cheerful triumph of performance and stagecraft over material.