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Elf, the Musical: hits within a miss

by | Nov 10, 2023 | Review | 1 comment

Can’t get enough of this guy: Andrew McNee as Buddy (Costume by Christine Reimer, photo by David Cooper)

This might sound weird but Andrew McNee is playing Buddy the elf in this production and, when I was watching him, I had a sudden — glorious — flash of his mortality. And mine. I was suddenly aware of how lucky I was, in that unique moment, to be witnessing this inspired performer hurling himself into Buddy who was hurling himself into a jazzy number called “Sparklejollytwinklejingly”. I even thought, “Will they speak of the legend of Andrew McNee one day?” I mean probably not, but he is that good.

There’s a less enthusiastic context for this: I don’t think the musical itself works. But let me celebrate more successes before I get into that.

As you’ll know if you’re one of the millions who have seen the non-musical Will Ferrell movie (I haven’t), the story’s about how Buddy crawled into Santa’s sack one night when he was a baby and was transported to the North Pole, where he was raised by Santa and his elves — thinking he was an elf. When Buddy discovers he’s human, he sets off to New York City to find his birth father, Walter Hobbs, who has no inkling of Buddy’s existence. Walter turns out to be a crusty, stressed-out publisher of children’s books who can’t believe he’s Buddy’s dad. Walter also thinks Buddy is nuts — because nobody in New York believes in Santa Claus anymore. Thematically, the story is about how Buddy’s elfin — or child-like — innocence renews their faith.

I loved Meghan Anderssen’s performance as Walter Hobbs’s secretary Deb. Deb thinks Buddy’s pretty cuckoo too, but she is also instantly, crazily fond of him. Anderssen brings charismatic glee to this. And she performs the best tap solo in the show. Okay, it might be the only tap solo, but it’s still really good.

Argel Monte de Ramos delivers a memorably witty turn as the manager of Macy’s fake North Pole.

I also particularly enjoyed Rickie Wang as Walter’s younger son Michael, and Paige Fraser, an understudy, who took on the role of Walter’s wife Emily the night I was there. Michael is the only real kid in the show, which is grounding, and Michael and Emily’s duet, “I’ll Believe in You”, which is about faith in Santa — and Walter — is among the most touching passages in this production.

McNee is bang in the middle of all this, so committed to innocence that he reminded me of a dog — as the best clowns always do. And singin’ and dancin’ up a storm.

But too much of the musical itself is hollow.

It has such a weird take on Christmas. Buddy is into the tinsel and the sugar. Okay, he’s an overgrown kid. But so much of the book is about similar superficialities. To a great extent, Santa embodies the spirit of Christmas in this story, but Santa, who is, let’s face it, the embodiment of the commercialization of Christmas, is also demanding: if you don’t believe in him, he puts you on the naughty list. Compare this to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which is about generosity and social conscience, including an awareness of the poor. It’s a Wonderful Life also embraces the generosity of Christmas in, frankly activist terms: it’s about the importance of housing and community.

Elf, the Musical also celebrates Buddy’s innocence, of course, which is great as far as it goes, but that isn’t very far for me. In their stories, the clown duo Mump and Smoot, for instance, go deeper — by adding major dollops of darkness.

If you think I’m asking too much of a musical about an elf, don’t condescend to musicals — or elves! And take a look at what’s left.

The section in which Buddy works, briefly, at the Macy’s North Pole parodies the commercialization of Christmas, but what does the musical itself offer? A relatively pricey, tinsely night out with a bunch of musical numbers that are, essentially, big Christmas presents that are all wrapping. The songs are forgettable. And, because the plot they’re supposedly advancing is so predictable, they mostly feel like very busy stalling.

So Elf, the Musical is not for me — at least in this production. But the thrill of live performance certainly is and I got that in electrifying jolts.

ELF, THE MUSICAL Book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin. Music by Matthew Sklar. Lyrics by Chad Beguelin. Based upon the New Line Cinema film written by David Berenbaum. An Arts Club Theatre production directed by Stephen Drover. On Thursday November 9. Running at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage until December 31. Tickets and information.

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1 Comment

  1. vanrafi

    The main theme here is that Christmas is about family and not about money. This is the A-story, buddy reconnecting with his father, making him understand that his family is much more important than his publishing job. Jovy, the love interest, understands that when she’s closing herself up to Christmas she’s also closing herself up to love. Not sure how you missed those and why you were so focused on Santa, who’s just the narrator here. The production has other issues in my opinion, mainly that none of the cast members are great singers, which is a bit of problem for a musical. Also, no live music.


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