Bring your children to Elf — the Musical, the opening show in this year’s Broadway Live series at the Lexington Opera House. The venue immerses the patrons in the world of the show: props are provided for “Elfie Selfie” photos, ushers wear elf hats, and the Sweet Spot sells candy in the upstairs lobby. It’s a fun evening out, you’ll have a good time, and the kids will be all smiles.
The show itself does a lot with little. The sets and characters are mostly two-dimensional, but the performers make the most of what they’re given. The tiny handful of crack pit musicians are miked so that they sound like a full big band. However, from the noisy opening number Happy All the Time to the final bows, this bold brassiness never stops. Aggressively directed by Sam Scalamoni with driving music and lyrics by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, we’re given no time to reflect, to breath, to rest.
Much of the humor of the title character, Buddy Elf, derives from the fact that this human orphan, raised in Christmastown at the North Pole, has grown into an outsized elf: he’s unrelentingly cheery and positive. This only works if he’s depicted in contrast to a more drab existence, like in the movie starring Will Ferrell. But in a musical, every character sings and dances, and in this musical, they do it all the time. We zip from scene to scene, and everyone seems to accept Buddy quickly. An overworked office staff joins in an extravagant number; an entire department store (led winningly by the Manager, played by Arthur L. Ross) celebrates Buddy’s infectious joy. In making every number a potential showstopper, they become unmemorable. What sets this Buddy apart is the versatile singing of Daniel Patrick Smith. He earns our respect through his enduring talent in the face of performers who equal his upbeat energy.
Finally, at the end of Act One, Buddy is rejected by his father, and we get a glimpse of real emotion. Buddy woefully sings his lament, but only seconds go by before he is joined by an offstage chorus singing in sprightly counterpoint. The show seems to be taking its wintery setting too literally, in that it’s afraid to be warm.
If the creators of Elf feel we’re not to be trusted with any downtime, they may have a point: during intermission, the house was filled with a sea of tiny screens as most of the audience texted messages and played games. This show may actually be a perfect reflection of our attention-deficit era.
Act Two is more successful, opening with the show’s best number by far, the hilarious Nobody Cares About Santa. A gaggle of department store St. Nicks complain about contemporary society’s lack of wonder as they sing in a glorious bluesy chorus and dance to Connor Gallagher’s witty choreography. Picture a bunch of men in Santa suits effortlessly performing Cabaret, and you get some idea of the rich humor of the piece.
But this is followed by what should have been a true ballad by Buddy’s dispirited girlfriend Jovie. Actress Daryn Harrell is a marvelous singer, but the song moves her quickly and humorously into an uptempo jazzy tune in the same vein as the one we just left. Shortly after, we are presented with the song Buddy the Elf, yet another syncopated swing number. For a retelling of Buddy’s history as a children’s book, this feels stylistically wrong.
Given the pedigree of the writers, Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, the book is surprisingly sloppy. Motivation is minimal. Jokes fall flat. Dropping such names as Dr. Phil and Charlie Rose are not punchlines in themselves. And everyone in the show is called an “idiot” at some point. If this is a motif, it should have been a funny one.
To be fair, everything that I found empty in the show was deemed hilarious by children, and the success of this show is best measured by their reaction. Because of this, the “adult” humor — fairly tame stuff, but still — would perhaps be better dropped. Listen: parents are entertained when their children are entertained. So market this as a children’s show, and we will forgive all. Like so many things, it might be that it’s simply easier to believe when we’re young.