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Marriott’s ‘Elf’ unites holiday revelers across the sparklejollytwinklejingley spectrum

The title alone, Elf: the Broadway Musical, puts would-be patrons in one of three camps.

Those in camp one typically love all things Christmas and, for sure, all things Buddy. They aspire to maintain the elfin diet (“We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corn and syrup”); have the 2003 Will Ferrell movie permanently loaded in the DVR, ready to watch at moment’s notice; often toss out Buddy quotes like, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear;” and have absolutely no problem with Marriott Theatre kicking off this “Holiday Season” production even before the trick-or-treaters arrived at their front doors.

Camp two’s members are a more eclectic (camp one neighbors would say “more curmudgeonly”) group. They range from the holiday-tolerant to the seasonally joyful, but agree Yuletide celebrations begin after Thanksgiving. These folks know at least a verse, often two, of the standard carols—if for no other reason than to be invited to parties with rum-laced egg nog. They have likely caught the Elf movie once or twice and probably enjoyed it enough, even if Ferrell got on their nerves a bit (it certainly doesn’t deserve the sentiment stature of White Christmas or It’s a Wonderful Life).

Camp three inhabitants have no clue what Elf, the movie or the musical, is all about. These folks live under a rock.

This reviewer, residing firmly camp two, is thrilled to report the superb Marc Robin-directed/choreographed version of Elf: the Broadway Musical, playing through year’s end, promises to do what new U.S. Speaker of the house Paul Ryan dreams of: unite all three camps in a common spirit of kindness and joy.

For those who need it, particularly the camp three residents, click here for the the story’s plot and show’s history.

Marriott’s production sports yet another cast oozing with Chicagoland all star talent. Johanna McKenzie Miller, George Keating, Samantha Pauly, Laura Savage, Brian Bohr, Liam Quealy and their fellow members of a massive ensemble are all immensely capable leading players who play their “no small parts” with requisite effervescent bliss.

On the subject of casting: Jeff winner Alex Goodrich as Buddy the Elf makes audiences think, Will Who? His gangly 6’4″ frame, omnipresent smile and earnest obliviousness make his Buddy so much more fully honest than Ferrell’s at times too cloying treatment of the character. Jeff nominee Dara Cameron as Jovie, who earlier this year starred as Wednesday in Mercury’s terrific production of The Addams Family, proves again she does melancholy really, really well. It’s time for Chicagoland directors to show off her full range of emotions along with her terrific singing voice.

A quintet of prior Jeff winners take on the parts of the principal grownups. Roger Mueller is quippy and fun as narrator Santa. Kevin Gudahl is the perfect killjoy, workaholic dad, Walter Hobbs. Susan Moniz is lovely as his secretary, Deb; Neil Friedman is appropriately grumpy as his boss, Chadwick. And Susie McMonagle as Buddy’s stepmom, Emily Hobbs, is simply terrific. In fact, McMonagle’s two duets with Cam Ezell (as Michael Hobbs), the first act’s “I’ll Believe in You” and the second’s “There is a Santa Claus,” are the songbook’s best. Ezell’s demonstration of a wonderfully controlled vibrato is astounding for such a young performer.

Additional musical highlights, ably led by Musical Director Ryan T. Nelson, include cast numbers, “Sparklejollytwinklejingley,” “Just Like Him” and “A Christmas Song” along with Cameron’s solo, “Never Fall in Love.”

Also deserving acclaim is James Earl Jones II‘s uproarious depiction of the Macy’s store manager. It is, in and of itself, worth the price of a ticket.

Thomas M. Ryan‘s minimalist sets are highlighted by one really cool Santa sleigh. But the visuals belong to Nancy Missimi‘s elfin costumes, among the most lovely, colorful and detailed ever seen. It’s a smart move by Robin to reprise these for the show’s finale. Jovie’s holiday tights are a lovely, distinctive collection, too.

The visual nit comes in the drab look of the spartan Hobbs living room and corresponding garb on Emily and Michael Hobbs, even on Christmas Eve. It’s simply too dull for two who muddle so well through their disappointment in their husband and dad.

With a book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Chad Beguelin, any professional live Elf is likely worthy, family-friendly, holiday fun. Act 1 is a 75-minute smile; Act 2 systematically ties up the plot lines before closing with a grin that deserves to last at least a week.

But truth be told, there’s something about this production that delivers more than expected. Something that allows residents in all three camps to join together and…

Just sing a Christmas song
It’s like magic if things go wrong
Just spread some Christmas cheer
By singing loud for all to hear

(Camp one…take the lead…) 

Just sing a Christmas song
And keep on singing all season long
Think of the joy you’ ll bring
If you just close your eyes and sing

And if you’re short of cheer
Think about that year
You woke up to find a brand new snow had fallen

The ornaments you made
Way back in second grade
Untangling Christmas lights
That took your father several nights
Your mom who claimed that she had proof
There were reindeer on the roof
Remember who you were back then
Let those moments live again 

Just sing a Christmas song (That’s it)
It’s like magic if things go wrong (Keep going)
Just spread some Christmas cheer
By singing loud for all to hear

Just sing a Christmas song
And keep on singing all season long
Think of the joy you’ll bring
If you just close your eyes and sing