By James V. Ruocco
If you've seen the 2003 Will Ferrell film "Elf" ("Is there anyone out there who hasn't?"), you already know the plot.
If you haven't (shame on you), it's time for a recap.
After crawling into Santa's great big sack of presents as a baby, little Buddy is magically transported to the North Pole and raised by those around him as an elf. Years later, he accidentally learns that he's not an elf at all, but rather a very tall human being whose father is a hard-nosed New York publisher of children's books who's about to get the ax unless he comes up with a great holiday story by Christmas Eve.
Not to worry, though.
Traveling to the Big Apple, Buddy is not only reunited with his long-lost family (dad, stepmom and stepbrother), but finds true love with a Macy's department store salesgirl named Jovie, marries her and brings their newborn daughter Suzie back to the North Pole to meet the big man in red.
Drawing its inspiration from the popular Christmas movie, "Elf - the Musical" takes a similar path to Santa Land with storytelling techniques and ideas that recreate most of the amusing diversions of the original film alongside characters, dialogue, musical numbers and dances that replay Buddy's antics with charm, gusto and festive effervescence.
That intoxicating spirit, accompanied by a sparkly presentation of Christmas snap, goodwill and wrapping paper transport, turn Fairfield Center Stage's reenactment of Buddy the Elf's story into a joyful, five-star celebration that hits a high note at every single turn.
This is a grown-up fairy tale of sorts that dares you to dream with lots and lots of candy canes, hot cocoa and candy corn on standby to share with all the people you love.
It also bursts into widescreen technicolor glory with astonishing feats of wizardry, niceness and holiday glee that is great fun for all, diced and spliced with Christmas cracker pep and step, twirling satirisation and jolly good sentimentality.
Staging "Elf - the Musical," director Marcelle Morrisey brightens the stage with a viable thrill and spill, offset by great warmth, wonderment, feel-good Christmas magic and shed-a-tear playfulness. Never once losing focus on the intent, purpose and story arc of this popular holiday tale, she fuels the musical with non-stop energy, opportunity and emotion that ditches the schmaltz and overkill of other "Elf" productions in favor of a win-win theatrical experience for all ages that is portrayed with relatable love, originality, style and word-for-word confidence and exhilaration.
Directorially, she has great fun with the material, clarifying the zigzagging, whimsical plot with comfort, zest and shine, mixed seamlessly with candy-cane sweetness, easy-listening sensibility and bang-on detail, encounter and concern. It's all paced and bandied about with fast-moving scene changes, straightforward, immersive storytelling, rippling flutter and landmark negotiation and leverage. Nothing is out of place. Nothing is thrown in for sentiment's sake. It all works splendidly including the snow machines that produce wet, falling whiteness much to the delight of the sugar-crazed, excited kids in the audience.
Full to the brim with Christmas spirit and holiday cheer, "Elf - the Musical" comes gift wrapped with a candy-coated musical score of festive treats, a melee of solo turns and ensemble numbers and joyfully bittersweet melodies that are plum pudding perfect for the snap-bang-wallop holiday fantasia invoked and marketed throughout the two-act musical.
Written by Matthew Skylar (music) and Chad Beguelin (lyrics), the production contains sixteen efficient, clever, strategically placed musical numbers that propel the action forward with lift, reference, naiveite and heartstring plucked merriment. Every one of songs is right for the characters who sing them and for theatergoers accustomed to musical scores supercharged with traditional Broadway charm, smartness and melody.
They are: "Happy All the Time," "World's Greatest Dad," "In the Way," "Sparklejollytwinklejingley," "I'll Believe in You," "In the Way (reprise)," "Just Like Him," "A Christmas Song," World's Greatest Dad (reprise)," "Nobody Cares About Santa," "Never Fall in Love (With an Elf)," "There is a Santa Claus," The Story of Buddy the Elf," "Nobody Cares About Santa (reprise)," "A Christmas Song (reprise)" and "Finale."
As musical director, Clay Zambo taps into the playful Skylar/Beguelin score with enlivened tinkle, plunk and roar, mastering the beat, flicker and gesture of the material itself, its lyrical chords and theatrics, its festive, holiday sound and its orchestrational flash, dash and rhythmic harmonies. Here, everything is given its whimsical, elemental, romantic weight. Nothing is overplayed, glazed over or schmaltz personified for entertainment's sake. Musical storytelling is pure fun with plenty of color and character. And the cast, under Zambo's tutelage is always animated and energetic.
Doubling as keyboardist, Zambo brings "Elf - the Musical" to life alongside the talented, handpicked orchestral team of Charles Casimiro (bass), Mark Dennis (trumpet), Gabe Nappi (drums) and Steve Fasoli (woodwinds). All five musicians are engaged and commanding, offering highly expressive choices, sounds and blending of instruments that expertly convey the concept and musicality of the show's creators, the freshness and vitality of the songs themselves, their bounce back tunefulness and their clearly delineated immediacy.
Emily Frangipane and Kelsey Kaminski, as co-choreographers, craft a celebration of dance and movement that is sunny, varied and fluent and chock full of swoop, slide, clash, cluster and glide. Throughout "Elf - the Musical," their choreographic interplay heightens the musical merriment of the show's narrative, its fluid, synced and swaying composite, its melancholic sizzle and its colorful, festive salute to all things Christmas. Mixing dance elements from "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" and "Annie" alongside that of the "Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular," the duo give their hardworking company of performers a variety of signature, classic Broadway moves to showcase via partnering and groupwork that shines and excites and prompts lots and lots of well-deserved applause in all the right places.
The success of "Elf - the Musical," first and foremost, depends on the casting of the show's Buddy. Without the "right" Buddy, the two-act musical, doesn't stand a chance. Here, Nick Kuell - a talented, charismatic actor who was born to play this role - knocks it out of the ballpark with a genuine, big-hearted performance that comes across as loveable, magical, childlike and sweet.
It doesn't get any better than Kuell and he owns the part of Buddy the moment he first appears on stage. It's a great musical comedy turn and one that the actor effortlessly confronts with bouts and flashes of cheer, heartbreak, amusement, romance and immensely likeable grace, sparkle and twinkle. Vocally, Kuell is in his element selling each and every one of the songs he is asked to sing with welcoming ease, passion, impact and arrangement.
In the roles of Buddy's newfound family, Walter, Emily and Michael Hobbs, Mark Silence, Samantha Moore and Sam Matis, fully embrace the sugar-coated cheer, angst, stumble and bewilderment of their individual characterizations, offset by great line delivery and a catchy song style showcased to great applause whenever they're onstage. As Jovie, Alexis Willoughby delivers yet another ovation worthy performance (her powerhouse vocal "Never Fall in Love" is a showstopper) that is brilliantly primed and executed with real feeling, real style and real emotion. Jeremy Ajdukiewicz is both the perfect storyteller and the perfect Santa Claus.
As Deb, Walter's secretarial assistant, who is "the life of the office," Lindsay Anderson is one of those natural, stand-out performers you can't help but notice the moment she appears on stage. She pretty much steals every scene she's in (not intentionally - she's a musical theatre triple treat with plenty of talent and musicality to boot) bringing the right spark, attitude and optimism to the production, matched by an in-the-moment connection and immersion that works wonders in this top-drawer musical confection of the highest order.