How can you mess with Santa, anyway? Not by much. I remember that feeling of belief in the miraculous. I remember coming into the living room on Christmas morning to find gifts that just were not there before. Milk and cookies gone. Go figure. I even have a friend whose parents hooked up sleigh bells that their dad rang by pulling a string tied to his toe when he and his wife came to get the kids to settle down and go to sleep.
I also remember the day when I walked into the kitchen and asked my mother about Santa Claus. She was leaning over the kitchen counter reading a magazine. I sidled up next to her and said, "There isn’t a Santa Claude, is there?” Without looking up she said, “Afraid not.” I said, “Okay.”
So why was I sitting there half way through this show with my hands clasped under my chin like a child waiting for a miracle.
It’s Santa: the guy in the invisible kingdom who knows each child and will deliver the goods. Even when you know there is no such person, there is still a little corner of your mind that says “What if?” Out new Santa is Oprah, who, when she is not actually giving gifts, encourages us to create our own lives as gifts to ourselves. Oprah is telling us to be our own Santa.
This production of Elf is by no means perfect. But it works enough because it sticks to the story of “what if you believe?” Like the story of the people in a monastery who were told that one among them was a Messiah. They each started treating one another with such respect that it changed the land for miles around.
Buddy is a human who was adopted by Santa after he crawled into the sleigh one night thirty years ago. As the story opens Buddy, (Sebastian Arcelus) received the news of why he is so darn tall and sets off to find his father in New York. Of course when he does find Walter Hobbs, (Mark Jacoby) the man is a total jerk. Hobbs lives for and at his job, paying little or no attention to his wife or son. Buddy changes all of that, naturally. Arcelus takes a sweet and consistent approach to Buddy, making him charming but not saccharine. He does not try to imitate Will Ferrel, which is wise. Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin have written a score that swings and is a total pleasure to hear. Matthew Gumley and Beth Leavel positively soar as the stepmother and brother of Buddy. And when this cast lets loose to celebrate they are clearly having a swell swell time. George Wendt is a superb and underused addition as Santa himself.
The choreography is uninspired and the set disappointing. The North Pole and Manhattan are simply cardboard cutouts, and the snow is a video-effect. Kind of dull surroundings for a story about Santa.
But they don’t get in the way of the story and the feeling it resurrected for me – that brief time in my life when I believed in Santa Claus. Being revisited by that hope was pretty swell, I have to admit.
What the popular press said...
"Tinseled in synthetic sentiment, performed with a cheer that borders on mania, and instantly forgettable."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"It feels unfinished and unready for New York."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"The main cast members are easy to like. ...Too bad they all feel underused."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Through it all, Arcelus, limber and loud, is the picture of puppy-doggedness, doing his darndest to please. You may want to slap him. "
Jeremy Gerard for Bloomberg
"Too sweet and a big mess."
David Sheward for Back Stage
"Generic, dramatically flat and as predictable as they come."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"A smart and thoroughly professional endeavor that packs plenty of old-fashioned entertainment."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"A pedestrian show that broadens the material to be more specifically kid-friendly, rendering it innocuous in the process."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"This tuner is happy enough for families, savvy enough for city kids and plenty smart for adults. "
Steven Suskin for Variety