Once again the holiday season has descended upon us. Pine wreaths hang from everything, ugly sweaters are worn with pride, and the Hallmark Channel finds new ways to tell the same old story. And Wilmington theatre gets invaded by Christmas-themed plays. A Christmas play, in its own right, is a license to print money. Families look for a festive, seasonal activity to create a memory around or a new tradition to carry forth.
Thalian Association has opened “Elf: The Musical,” a classic holiday film turned into a not-so-classic holiday musical. The show simplifies an already simple story. Still, it’s fun—like sitting-on-the-couch-in-comfy-pants-eating-potato-chips fun: lazy but satisfying.
The musical version—from Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan—does little more than copy and paste the goodwill of its cinematic namesake. Chandler Davis has directed the local cast, including the protagonist, Buddy the elf, played by Jeff Hidek—an orphaned human who, as a baby, is rescued (err, kidnapped) by Santa Claus (Jim Bowling). He grows up in the North Pole, raised by elves. Buddy believes he is just another elf—if a giant, incompetent one. Upon learning his secret human origin, Buddy sets off to the Big Apple to find his biological father. What he discovers is a world caring less and less about the holiday spirit.
At the top of the show, the audience is welcomed into Christmastown by Santa and his merry elves. The elves, played by child actors, do a good job perpetuating the joyful nature of Christmas. The opening number, “Happy All the Time,” sets the right tone for the world the audience is entering. It’s also a fun romp to kick things off, showing what Christmas spirit in full force looks and sounds like.
Just as well, Bowling is on point as ol’ Saint Nick, the show’s narrator. He finds a good balance of being both jolly and full of merriment and then sarcastically over it all. With his sleeves rolled up, revealing tattoos on his arms, it’s a great, simple visual cue to this being a modern, hip Santa.
In fact, the time spent in Christmastown is a real highlight of the entire production. Jen Iapalucci’s costume designs flourish here. Her work with the tiny mystical creatures show classic elfin culture. It’s also where the first examples of Samantha Ray Misfud’s clean and crisp choreography are shown. Misfud uses the full space of the stage to create sprawled-out numbers that convey a state of busyness at the workshop, all the way to the streets of NYC. From a madcap Christmas party to a gang of disgruntled Santas, Misfud’s work never becomes clunky or unable to read. She has a good control over her dancers and the space. “No One Cares about Santa” and “The Story of Buddy the Elf” showcase prime examples of controlled chaos.
Katie Richmond Deese leads her band like a pro. She and the entire orchestra bring a fun, festive sound to the Hall, which never overpowers the cast. In fact, audio for the show is very crisp, and I had no issues hearing every line spoken or word sung.
It’s when the story moves to New York City that issues start to appear. Though the production doesn’t slow from scene change to scene change, its energy suffers. The story just can’t find a steady pace. Even if it’s paint-by-numbers, the story falls back on its lead and the role’s required idiocy to progress the plot. So it becomes more a mind-numbing exercise in predictability.
Hidek as Buddy the elf is a miss. He serves the role but never reaches the point where playing an annoying elf becomes endearing. He succeeds in bringing energy to the stage, yet his performance feels stunted. It can’t seem to shake a grand sense of self-consciousness. Though the jokes are clearly aimed at his character, Hidek seems to hold back, as if not wanting to be the butt of them. A lack of range in expressions also doesn’t do justice to Buddy’s overzealous joy for life. While playing a zany “fool” is a fine line to walk, it can’t be tiptoed around here.
Buddy’s biological father, Walter (Stuart Pike), his stepmother Emily (Jen Hancock), and his half-brother Michael (Noah Feeley), are unaware of Buddy’s existence. They all hit the right notes as a tightly wound family. Pike plays an overwrought businessman well. Hancock is a sweet, doting caregiver. Feeley has some funny bits, too. “In the Way” combines the family and the staff of Walter’s publishing company, showing how the Christmas spirit has and is being stripped from them all. While it’s a bit of a downer number, the cast bounce off each other well, and Feeley has little funny pearls of humor that shine. Overall, though, the script doesn’t do them any favors.
Hunter Wyatt stands out among all the supporting roles. She plays Buddy’s love interest, Jovie, a Christmas-hating Macy’s employee, trying to stay one step ahead of her seasonal depression (I can relate). Wyatt’s voice stuns and fills Thalian with a rich, warm coziness. Her number “Never Fall in Love” balances humor and pathos of a cold heart opened, only to have her analytical mind take over and let in the holiday doldrums. She has mined what she could from the padded script and her good work shows.
Georgie Simon as Walter’s secretary Deb proves the age-old adage: There are no small roles only small actors. While she does fall into the ensemble, she never disappears into it. Her voice and comedy timing are on point.
Any good play, musical or film starts with a solid script. Though cinematically engaging, “Elf: The Musical” falls flat for me. The fish-out-of-water tale is time-tested, for sure. Yet, the musical version doesn’t take any risks embracing the zany holiday classic; instead, it borders on mundane.
For better or worse, that doesn’t matter in the end. This is a holiday show … the reason for the season. Families will show up and love it, either way. It’s a known property, it’s family-friendly, and it’s Christmastime.
‘Tis the season.