While the holiday season surely brings a wealth of opportunities for family fun, in Chicagoland it mostly brings the same tried and true theatrical opportunities. Endless Scrooges and Nutcrackers and Nativities in all their varied glory. If you’re in the mood for something a little different this year, a short drive out to the Paramount in Aurora might just be the holiday magic you’re looking for.
I know what you’re thinking. Do I really want to see a musical based on a mildly charming Will Farrell movie with songs added and without the original cast when I can just pop in the DVD or Netflix it? The fact is, you do.
As usual, the Paramount has seen fit to cast the best of the best in the various roles. Kyle Adams as Buddy the Elf brings even more innocence and just as much whimsy as Farrell did in the film. He’s also tall and gangly and while he’s dancing like mad, it only adds more to the fun. He’s on stage almost throughout the show and you do not get tired of him at any point. It’s like he’s channeling Jimmy Stewart a bit as he’s playing smart dumb, or wise innocence. He’s utterly delightful, just as he should be in this really very demanding part.
The score by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin adds beautifully to the story. The original songs are charming, tuneful and actually add to the holiday magic of the production. They move the plot, they’re hummable and give the singers some major star turns. I came with very, very low expectations and was impressed by the musical aspects of this show, not just the performances.
Some standouts include the fun opening number with the Elves, Christmastown; Buddy getting his coworkers at the Department Store into the Christmas mood with Sparklejollytwinklejingly; Buddy’s step-mom Emily, and brother Michael, with their letter to Santa I’ll Believe in You; and the disaffected Department Store Santas with Nobody Cares About Santa. Every one of them was fun in the classic musical vein, like they’d been penned by Comden and Green. The score feels really old school, despite it being quite new. And that’s not a criticism. It goes perfectly with the timeless message of the story about families at Christmastime.
The book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin is not quite so strong. It hits most of the major beats of the Will Farrell film, but fails to develop the relationship between Buddy and Jovie, which was absolutely the heart of the movie version. While ably acted and beautifully sung by Samantha Pauly we know only one thing about her, that she’s been disappointed by her previous boyfriend because he couldn’t get her into Tavern On the Green for Christmas Eve dinner. The character as written has been reduced to one-note, and the entire production suffers from it. You never understand why Buddy falls for her other than thinking she’s pretty. Not really a great lesson to be teaching kids.
And even while the focus has shifted firmly to Buddy’s family, even that relationship feels truncated. You understand Emily and Michael’s disappointment with Walter, but you don’t really get to understand why they become so taken with Buddy. The Walter and Buddy relationship goes about like it did in the film, and Michael Accardo is terrific as Walter. There’s just not enough time spent on any of the primary relationships.
Maybe the book authors felt that in aiming it at kids, they needed to work with short attention spans, but the kids I saw it with were not fidgety or seeming like they were losing interest. If they’d kept the sparkly magical pace and added a few good jokes, they could have spent a few more minutes on the character development.
As there isn’t an obvious replacement for Peter Dinklage, the Miles Finch plot is somewhat changed, but still works. The book writers missed a great opportunity here with the terrible children’s book pitches. The ones they have are merely stupid and unfunny when they could have been inappropriate and hilarious.
The Santa’s sleigh portion of the story is also somewhat changed but ends up being one of the most magical moments in the entire show. And Roger Mueller as Santa is as jolly an old Elf as could be wished, despite being completely hip and up-to-date with his pop culture references.
Despite the book’s weakness, Elf makes for a really fun time at the theatre and is a great show for the whole family. The first-rate production with terrific scenic design by Gregory Kmiec, lovely
costumes by Theresa Ham and incredible sound design by Adam Rosenthal rivals anything you’d see downtown. Like everywhere in Chicagoland, Aurora is about an hour away, so get in the car and go to the Paramount for a fun addition to your holidays.
Elf the Musical runs through January 7th. Purchase tickets here.
Photos by Liz Lauren and Thomas J. King.