Smiling’s My Favorite: “Elf the Musical” Manages to Charm

During the holiday season, we can pretty much expect the same things: cute little Christmas tree markets, folks feeling all the feels over peppermint mochas, and the usual parade of holiday movies on Netflix. It's the time of year when you can't turn your head without being reminded to rewatch everything from White Christmas to Home Alone. And in 2003, the antics of green-tights-clad Will Ferrell in the hit comedy Elf joined the canon as required holiday watching.

Surprisingly sweet and likable given its provenance as a vehicle for a former Saturday Night Live star, Elf became a contemporary classic spawning tons of merchandise, a book, and Elf the Musical, which premiered in 2010. With new music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Chad Beguelin, the touring production makes its San Francisco stop this month at SHN's Curran Theater.

Most of us know how the story goes thanks to the film's endless repetition on basic cable. After crawling into Santa's toy bag, a human baby is raised in the North Pole by workshop elves who call him “Buddy.” Believing that he too is an elf — despite being a shoddy toymaker who is several feet taller than the rest of Santa's workers — he's understandably upset to discover that not only is he human, but his dad is also apparently the kind of jerk who ended up on the naughty list.

Unlike the film version which is led by one Papa Elf, Elf the Musical is narrated by none other than Santa Claus himself. Yet this is a different Santa, a 2014 version who eats Doritos, uses an iPad, references Al Gore, and had to forgo the use of reindeer after a run-in with PETA.

The plot picks up when Buddy naively decides to go find his father in New York City, try to live with him, and be his best friend. Enter an enthusiastic Eric Williams in the leading role of Buddy the Elf. The lanky actor, with a perfected gee-shucks style of dopey smile, is immediately likable. And while his voice seems just a hair thinner than your typical leading man, it's this little quirkiness that probably helped Williams win the role. He plays up his awkwardness, giving a decisively offbeat performance. This endearing goofiness is reflected in his dancing as well. Even in group numbers, Williams' choreography substitutes hammy jazz hands for the technical jumps of the rest of the cast. Whether it's meant to cover a slight lack of technique, be intentionally cheesy, or a little of both, he more than sells the part.

Which is tricky, considering the entire character has been built off a 90-minute movie of Will Ferrell being Will Ferrell. But Williams' Buddy is not simply a Ferrell impersonation; the actor puts his own stamp on the material. Some of the slight changes hit, some miss. Either way it's refreshing to see a new take on the character. And anyone who can make a hyperactive 30-year-old man — particularly one who equates a paper shredder with a magic snow machine, or who believes that sugar should make up the majority of one's diet — seem like more than a crazy lunatic should be applauded.

Williams is supported by Jesse Sharp and Lexie Dorsett Sharp, as Buddy's father and stepmom. Husband and wife both onstage and off, they have chemistry that is spot on. Dorsett Sharp in particular has a special way of connecting with her all of her co-stars. Her sweet duet, “There is a Santa Claus,” with her son Michael (played by Harper Brady) was especially memorable.

Maggie Anderson in the role of Jovie, Buddy's love interest, has less of this connection with her fellow castmates — most obvious when interacting with Williams. But her huge voice and razor-sharp snarkiness make it hard to stay mad at her for long. Overall, her performance is solid.

Equally solid are the ensemble members as Santa's elves. Played by average-sized humans who walk — and dance — on their padded knees, their imaginative choreography (by Connor Gallagher) creates the illusion of lots of movement, despite the fact that they are only using half of their bodies. The lively dancing is mirrored by fantastic costumes, not just for the elves, but throughout the evening. Done by Gregg Barnes, the colorful North Pole is particularly stunning, especially alongside the lush sets by Christine Peters.

These dazzling (and expensive-looking) surroundings perfectly set the tone for each location — down to the overbearing feel of a spiritless New York. In that atmosphere it's not hard to see why the New Yorkers of Elf have lost their faith in Santa. In the brawny “Nobody Cares About Santa,” a ragtag group of mall Santas gather in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day. The group seem disheartened, overworked, and, well, pretty drunk; not exactly the type of guys you would want cradling your kid on their lap.

And although it's one of the most boisterous numbers of the night, “Nobody Cares About Santa” hits a sour note when the Chinese server who waits on the dining Santas warbles through the piece in an exaggerated Asian accent. Although the actress portraying the server appears to be Asian, the role is pretty cringe-worthy, bordering on Mickey Rooney a la Breakfast at Tiffany's. The “joke” seems archaic, and not particularly clever or interesting — just a lazy way to get a cheap laugh. It's nearly 2015. When are we going to stop using accents as a punchline?

Uncomfortable Chinese restaurant-bit aside, Elf the Musical is easy to enjoy, and is bound to be the most pleasant hour and a half you spend all week. The fresh, musical take on the film is bright and fun. And as Buddy the Elf says, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer, is singing loud for all to hear!”


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