The holiday season is a very special time for me. I grew up in a house that took Christmas very seriously along with various traditions that we stuck to like clock work. I’m 25 years old and every Christmas eve my family all sits down and watches the movie “Elf” without fail. Sometimes multiple times throughout the month but on Christmas Eve it is not up for discussion -- “Elf” will be watched. No if, ands or buts about it. That tradition got a little twist this year when my mother and I were able to see our favorite Christmas movie on the stage in St. Paul at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts.
Elf is the story of Buddy the elf who, when he was young, mistakenly snuck into Santa’s sack and was transported to the North Pole. Over the course of 30 years he is raised by elves and becomes a toy maker in Santa’s workshop until one day when the head elf lets it slip that he’s human. Buddy is then told by Santa about his father, Walter Hobbs, who is a publisher in the magical land of New York, City. Soon Buddy realizes there is a whole world to explore along with various life lessons as he meets his half brother, father, a girl and the life he never knew existed.
I’ll say I was nervous at first because this show already had a lot of pressure with me watching mainly because of my deep admiration for the movie. I truly love this movie and know it like the back of my hand however I will say that it works. The musical does a decent and fair rework of bits and pieces of the original plot to make it as a staged production. While it can be corny to some, I do enjoy when a touring production incorporates a few cultural moments from the city they reside in. For example Santa makes a joke about wanting to give up his career to open a fourth Chipotle inside Mall of America (however we only have one inside MOA, just saying). It makes it a bit more special and fun for those who are seeing the show. They also manage to still incorporate some of your favorite lines even if they aren’t exactly the same way as the movie. The cast also creates these characters as their own and not just carbon copies of what is already a pretty all star cast with Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel.
The staging, designed by Christine Peters, is reminiscent of the art design of the original movie. It’s mainly created with various fly in and rolled on 2-dimensional pieces that are decorated with the perfect amount of holiday flair. What I love so much about these designs is they remind me of the opening credits of the original movie and look like book illustrations. It’s beautiful and also homage to the movie without copying directly, a common theme I continue to talk about. The lighting, designed by Paul Miller, deserves some credit as well as it helps give it that typical Broadway feel during every song and dance number while also giving a special holiday look.
The music, written by Matthew Sklar with lyrics by Chad Beguelin, is similar to the rest of the technical elements of the show by incorporating a Broadway flair but also celebrating the holidays. The cast brilliantly sings these numbers and I must say some of these songs have made it onto my giant holiday mega playlist for the season! One of my favorite moments was when all of the dressed up Santa Clause are in a Chinese restaurant during Christmas Eve. While they dance and sing with Buddy, they use chairs and spot lights to give a “Cell Block Tango” vibe. I’m almost positive I heard a few notes and melodies mimic the song which makes it even more delicious.
The show is lead by Sam Hartley who plays Buddy. Hartley is energetic and bounces around the stage with a great voice to accompany the songs. Mackenzie Lesser-Roy plays the, what I normally would consider, the female lead however the book seems to forget about the character sometimes and randomly plunks her in again from time to time. Emily Hobbs and Michael Hobbs, who are played by Marie Lemon and Tristan Klapshake, and have some really beautiful scenes together. They really ground the show in a bit of realism with some great mother son moments. Honestly I just want to give a specific shout out to the actress who played Deb, Morgan Billings Smith. Deb is Walters secretary and even in the movie she manages to stand out just as Billings Smith did with this role. She’s funny, loud and just kind of reminds you of someone in your own office that you love.
Is Elf an award winning and thought provoking piece? No. Is it a fun show for families to come enjoy during the holiday season? Absolutely. I fully believe this show was not created to be a huge money making machine but just an experience and memory maker for families. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing so many families bringing their young children for their first theatre experience and to me that is what it’s all about.
Elf currently is playing at the Ordway Center for Performing Arts in St. Paul now through Dec. 30.