The perennial harbinger of the holiday season has already descended on Rockefeller Center and Starbucks is handing out the coveted red and white cups, so it should come as no surprise that Broadway has rolled out the red carpet for some temporary holiday flare in the form of short-run musicals sporting yuletide cheer.
Over the past few seasons Broadway patrons have been indulged with the likes of the musical “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” — it made multiple returns to the New York theatre scene — and last winter a touring production of “White Christmas.” Both catered to crowds longing for yesteryear memories come to life on a Broadway stage. What person growing up in America didn’t read The Grinch or watch Danny Kaye ham it up with Bing Crosby?
Neither show was extremely memorable, but this season there is something slightly zany defying theatrical logic. “Elf” has made its Broadway debut in the form of a tongue-in-cheek musical, based on the Will Ferrell holiday comedy.
While the SNL alum is nowhere to be found, a slight bit of charm is swirling around the Al Hirschfield Theatre, thanks to an original score and book full of just enough wit to keep “Elf” from fading away as another saccharine song-fest.
Bringing book writers Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin on board helped keep things fresh in this family-friendly show, including some adult references for the TMZ-browsing crowds — Charlie Sheen gets a name drop at one point, and it isn’t for his sitcom affability.
Meehan, who is perhaps best known for writing the musical “Annie,” brought a sensibility to this project that seemingly escapes some of the other creative types charged with churning out Hollywood adaptations for Broadway audiences. “I thought about it for a while because not every movie is a musical,” Meehan recently said. He ultimately relied on the “fanciful fairytale” aspect of the source material’s story to build up a full-length stage production.
Much like the book writers, Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin brought “Elf’s” new music to life with an eye towards a slightly more sophisticated audience than previous holiday productions have aimed for, although it is hard to imagine any of the show’s tunes from appearing on any future Christmas compilation CDs.
Ultimately, the music gets laughs and an occasional sigh thanks to some smart casting choices. “Cheers” alum George Wendt dons Santa’s signature red suit, although he injects a wry sense of humor, as does Tony Award-winner Beth Leavel, who has a softer role to play in “Elf” than she did in her star-making turn as the title character of “The Drowsy Chaperone.” As for the role of Buddy, the man-elf, actor Sebastian Arcelus has a sufficiently goofy enough time on stage, although it’s impossible not to think of Ferrell throughout the show.
Should “Elf” disappear along with the browned Christmas trees sure to line New York’s sidewalks early next year, Meehan’s sentiments should live on, because his admitted scrutiny over the need to adapt New Line Cinema’s film for the Broadway stage needs to be applied across the board. In “Elf,” there is just enough working right to make the holiday cheer enjoyable.
Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus.