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Theater Review: Elf The Musical

Has it really been three years since we last saw Buddy the Elf? It’s hard to believe that, in the holiday slot filled by “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” over the years at the Historic Iao Theater, Buddy and his show have remained dormant. In fact, seeing how astonishingly energetic star Ricky Jones is in the role for the third time and how robust the show still is, it appears that “Elf The Musical” was antsy to bust out of hibernation. Yet, this isn’t merely a re-staging. If you’ve already seen it, you’ll have to see it again. It feels like a different show.

The story remains intact: Buddy the Elf (played by Jones, fearless as ever) learns that his upbringing in the North Pole as Santa’s atypically tall worker elf conceals his true past. Turns out, Buddy is a human, whose corporate big shot father, Walter Hobbs (played by Bennett Cale, who does a nice slow burn), is on The Naughty List. Buddy’s journey to The Big Apple leads him to Macy’s department store, where he falls for a co-worker named Jovie (played by a charming Carlyn Leal). Hobbs wife and son (winningly played by Lisa Teichner and Ethan Tyler Baysa) are enchanted by Buddy, but not everyone is taken by a man who is usually adorned in a furry green outfit, constantly ingesting sugar and appears to be stark raving mad.

While Walter Hobbs is put off by Buddy’s manic personality, no such resistance will be expressed by the audience towards Jones’ terrific work. This is the third time I’ve written this but it bears mentioning: at no point was I thinking about Will Ferrell or his iconic 2003 performance in the role. Jones has a different take on the part; his performance is a somersault of whimsy, as he takes each individual gag as far as it can go. Whether describing the ingredients to a “chocolate monster,” making a reference to “Annie” or randomly performing “Carol of the Bells” (an amazing physical bit), Jones is hysterically funny and totally convincing in the role. In a production that features the onstage magic of Santa’s sleigh and an appearance by Mr. Narwhal, Jones’ work is still the best special effect on hand.

The talented ensemble cast offers some real scene stealers, starting with Teichner, warm and wonderful as Mrs. Hobbs. Teichner and Baysa make “There is a Santa Claus” something truly special; it’s fun to watch them work in their scenes together. Leal has a knockout voice and brings heart and vulnerability to her performance. Gabby Anderman is delightful as Debby- keep your eye on her during “Just Like Him,” a big winner in the first act. Rueben Carrion is electric playing Buddy’s no-nonsense Macy’s boss and catch his funny cameo, playing a jogger in a red suit who Buddy mistakenly believes is Santa. Robyn Goodblatt is a standout in the role of the TV reporter, on the scene during the New York Santa sightings.

Thanks to the terrific sets by Caro Walker, there’s a lovely sequence set in a Rockefeller Center; the complex set pieces are dazzling to the eye and manipulated by well choreographed scene changes. The musical direction by Kim Vetterli (conducted by Richard Vetterli) give the songs a full, rich sound. “A Christmas Song’ is especially lovely to hear coming from the strong musicians and vocalists. Kalani Whitford’s choreography is playful and incorporates different approaches to each musical number. The costumes by Vicki and Jessi Nelson are gorgeous, rich in color and compliment the juxtaposition of Christmas magic existing in the harsh city. Oh, and it snows onstage.

Dale Button, who normally plays the role of Walter Hobbs, takes over for the departed Alexis Dascoulias as the show’s director. His comic energy is felt in the show’s pace, as the running time is peppered with enough great scenes, catchy tunes and hilarious one-liners to keep the momentum going. As silly as this gets, there is something beautiful, even profound, in the show’s demonstration of innocence versus cynicism. Buddy may be a fool, but he’s a good man with an unceasing desire to give. “Elf The Musical” is oddly touching, in the way it portrays how even the most unhappy and hardened of us can change the way we look at the world. This is also the foundation of the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge and George Bailey, which puts Buddy in good company.

Finally, a bit of nostalgia: I was fortunate enough to catch the 1992 run of “The Rocky Horror Show” at the Historic Iao Theater and recall what a rabid (and entirely merited) cult following that production created. Now, in 2018, seeing kids throughout the Historic Iao Theater wearing “Elf The Musical” t-shirts, twinkling hats and wands, I smiled and recognized that I was sitting among a new generation of fandom. So be it. The show’s still wonderful and put me in the perfect mood to begin December. I’m happy that Buddy is back and that Button’s production is such a pleasure for audiences for all ages. Only a cotton-headed ninny-muggins would miss it.

Elf The Musical runs until Dec 9th at the Historic Iao Theater. Tickets are available at mauionstage.com or by calling 808-242-6969.

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