The 2003 film struck a winning balance by offsetting its Yuletide-spirit and family-reaffirmation sentimentality with double-edged absurdist humor, much of it fueled by Ferrell’s antic physical comedy. But those leavening aspects are diluted in a pedestrian show that broadens the material to be more specifically kid-friendly, rendering it innocuous in the process.
Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw and book writer Bob Martin were behind the inspired pastiche The Drowsy Chaperone, while Martin’s co-librettist Thomas Meehan collected Tonys for Hairspray, The Producers and Annie. But Nicholaw has a better feel for period styles than he does for contemporary cute, and the writers struggle to make the mostly second-hand jokes land.
Their efforts are given little support by a mediocre score from the Wedding Singer team of composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin. With few exceptions, the sound-alike numbers blend into one, and the lethargic dance interludes provide minimal elevation. It’s all pleasant, but generic.
That label also fits designer David Rockwell‘s flat greeting-card cut-out sets, which lack magic in the hurried North Pole opening and variation in the succession of New York City-scapes that follow. The show’s modest, projection-heavy look and under-populated feel give it the appearance of a road production, a future in which Broadway might just be a stepping stone.
The cast does what it can with the wan material. As Buddy, the human raised by elves who travels to Manhattan to meet his grouchy father (Mark Jacoby) and reacquaint a jaded city with the Christmas spirit, Sebastian Arcelus works hard and has plenty of ingratiating moments. But that spark of comic genius needed to carry the show eludes him.
Jovie, the love interest played by Zooey Deschanel in the movie, already was under-utilized, and Amy Spanger‘s role is further marginalized here. However, she does get a catchy Rat Pack-style number called “Never Fall in Love” in a second act that delivers more punch than the first.
Jacoby as Buddy’s workaholic dad and Beth Leavel (another Drowsy Chaperone recruit) as his neglected wife are pros whose skills are untaxed in formulaic roles. Assuming the storytelling duties of Bob Newhart’s Papa Elf in the movie, George Wendt shuffles in as an amiable Santa with an iPad for his naughty and nice lists.
The show closes with a fun tap number in which some of the color and joy that’s been so sparingly doled out finally explode on the stage. Elsewhere, the eggnog needs a shot of something.
Brisk sales for recent seasonal entries like Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas and White Christmas have proven that holiday tourist traffic can be lured without stellar musical craftsmanship. Elf may well continue that trend. But the talent pool involved made it legitimate to expect more charm and conviction.
Venue: Al Hirschfeld Theatre, New York (runs through Jan. 2)
Cast: Sebastian Arcelus, Amy Spanger, Mark Jacoby, Beth Leavel, George Wendt, Michael Mandell, Michael McCormick, Valerie Wright, Matthew Gumley, Matthew Schechter
Music: Matthew Sklar
Lyrics: Chad Beguelin
Book: Thomas Meehan, Bob Martin, based on the New Line Cinema film written by David Berenbaum
Director-choreographer: Casey Nicholaw
Set designer: David Rockwell
Costume designer: Gregg Barnes
Lighting designer: Natasha Katz
Sound designer: Peter Hylenski
Projection designer: Zachary Borovay
Music direction-vocal arrangements: Phil Reno
Orchestrations: Doug Besterman
Presented by Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures in association with Unique Features