Broadway producers have been trying for years to come up with durable seasonal programming: family-suitable musicals that can be pulled out of the warehouse every November, recast as necessary, and play two sold-out months with minimal effort. This biz plan hasn’t quite worked for such efforts as “White Christmas” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” but the producers of “Elf” just might have found the key. Based on the 2003 New Line comedy starring Will Ferrell (which grossed some $220 million), this tuner is happy enough for families, savvy enough for city kids and plenty smart for adults.
Warner Bros. Theater Ventures, which controls numerous properties but is offering only its second self-produced Broadway musical, has clearly learned from its mishaps on the first. (“Lestat,” anyone?) The creators — apparently under the close supervision of director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw (of “The Drowsy Chaperone” and the well-received Encores production of “Anyone Can Whistle”) — have taken a highly enjoyable film and enhanced it for theater audiences.
Nicholaw’s staging successfully retains the many charms of the movie, and his choreography is filled with delightful touches, starting with the very first number, when he cleverly manages to make his 6-foot-plus leading man, Sebastian Arcelus, look twice the size of his dancing elves. Librettists Thomas Meehan (“The Producers”) and Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) retain the spirit and cheer of the film while cannily punching it up: Their Santa travels with an iPad tucked in his belt, which not only earns big laughs but illustrates that “Elf,” which is only seven years old, has been given a knowing brush-up for Broadway.
The efforts of Nicholaw, Meehan and Martin compensate for a less-than-overwhelming score from Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin; their work is only slightly better than on their earlier attempt, “The Wedding Singer.” There are a few effective songs (“Sparklejollytwinklejingley,” “Nobody Cares About Santa,” “The Story of Buddy the Elf”), but these are the exception. Their all-important Christmas song, not-so-creatively called “A Christmas Song,” falls especially flat. Music director Phil Reno and orchestrator Doug Besterman contribute a sometimes swinging big-band sound, which helps.
The show seemingly has learned lessons from the overpowering screen-to-stage adaptations of “Shrek” and “The Little Mermaid,” whose producers tried to overwhelm audiences with super-sized effects that all but drained their wares of magic. Here, the creators invite the audience to use its imagination — and auds are sure to respond. In fact, “Elf” is the antithesis of “Big: The Musical”: Just about everything that went wrong with that big-budget fiasco goes right here.
How is “Elf” without Will Ferrell? Arcelus, recently a replacement Jersey Boy, can’t hope to compare with the Hollywood superstar. But he needn’t; within the context of the show, he makes an engaging Buddy, carrying the affair with a broad, likable smile. Mark Jacoby as the father, George Wendt (of “Cheers”) as Santa and Amy Spanger as the love interest are fine if you’ve never seen their superior screen counterparts.
Beth Leavel (like Nicholaw and Martin, a Tony winner for “Drowsy”) is hidden in a relatively small role. Standing out in supporting parts are singing comedian Michael Mandell as the toy manager at Macy’s, Valerie Wright as a secretary who moves like a Fosse dancer, and a very funny child actor named Matthew Gumley as Buddy’s younger brother.
Scenery features David Rockwell’s customary flair, although the limited run necessitates a visibly economical scale; Rockwell does, however, give us a real ice-skating rink. Gregg Barnes’ costumes are generally fine, with numerous enjoyable touches (like those bright green and red high-top sneakers in the Macy’s number). One wonders, though, why Spanger wears a short red dress with a light unbuttoned sweater in Central Park on Christmas Eve while everyone else has winter coats, mufflers and hands stuffed in pockets. Natasha Katz’s lighting is an asset, especially her Tavern on the Green electrified tree and a cyc flooded with color (including jade green for an unemployed-Santa dance).
Warner presumably plans to bring the tuner back next Thanksgiving/Christmas, with additional companies playing big cities (as was done with “White Christmas”). Daniel Radcliffe and “How to Succeed” start their move into the Hirschfeld in mid-January, but if “Elf” business is strong enough, the producers might want to consider packing up the tinsel in Santa’s sled and transferring to one of Broadway’s several soon-to-empty houses. “Elf” onstage should appeal to a widespread audience, and not just for Christmas.