The set-up: You know that feeling on Christmas when you open a rather dull-looking present and what's inside is even duller? You half-expect a sweater not in your style or a book by an author you vowed never to read again, and, yes, there they are, some bulky cable-knit processed in China and some fatuous tome by Tom Brokow. You smile and say thank you, like we were taught many years ago in our youth; it's the thought that counts, remember? But inside you secretly curse Santa, that the giver didn't give one iota of consideration about whom the gift was for. It's a present, for sure, but an empty gesture.
That's Elf in a paragraph. Knocked off and punched up from the Will Farrell movie, this 2010 limited edition opened on Broadway and played during the holiday seasons for two years. Now it's ready to hit the road, sort of. Theatre Under the Stars presents the musical for its December offering. There could be worse presents.
The execution: That there is no genuine Christmas musical should be cause for alarm. A few seasons back, Irving Berlin's White Christmas, a natural, was a turkey since the adapters didn't trust the original film, and, sweet Vistavision, who could possibly replicate Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney? (Vera Ellen, well, that's another story.) Except for the snow finale, which was unexpected and total theater magic, the show failed in every way. From the golden days, theater groupies might recall Meredith Willson's Here's Love (1963), an adaptation of the beloved holiday classic film The Miracle on 34th Street. Although the show ran ten months, the composer/lyricist who gave us perhaps the grandest of all American musicals, The Music Man, turned out a charmless flop.
Elf, Farrell's first big screen debut after leaving his star-turn on TV's Saturday Night Live, was a mega hit. Let's turn it into a musical! The book writers are Broadway pros, Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin. (Meehan won Tonys for Annie, Hairspray, and The Producers; Martin won his for The Drowsy Chaperone). For all the grownup talent, the book is the show's least laudable aspect. Don't look for the movie's snarky, anarchic humor, or the raccoon, the "angry" elf, the shower crooning, the revolving door, or the Park Rangers. The movie's been scrubbed clean for the kiddies. It's up to the young up-and-comers, composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin, nominated for their score to the musical The Wedding Singer (2006) - adapted from, what else, an Adam Sandler movie - to supply the charm. And they do this by going back in time.
The score is a classic example of a type that has gone out of style, but still makes an impression. How we've missed it. The arrangements swing, like '60s Sinatra in Vegas, or the best of Burt Bacharach. They have clever hooks to them, changing direction and shifting keys in surprisingly adept ways. If a number calls for upbeat, they write a really, really upbeat one, something Jerry Herman would be proud to call his own. The lyrics are brass and sassy, like prime Frank Loesser. When mom and daughter write a letter to Santa, they list what they don't want -- nice and clever. A ballad goes bluesy, but not too much. Rock, metal, and grunge have no place here, we're definitely in old Broadway land. It's so nice to hear.
Everything else is fairly rote: minimal sets that veer close to cheesy, good costumes from David Woolard, unmemorable production numbers from choreographer Michelle Gaudette, and busy, frantic direction from Bruce Lumpkin, TUTS' artistic director.
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While not as manically cheery and a tad creepy as was Farrell, Tommy J. Dose, as Buddy the Elf, has sweet innocence down to a science. Bigger than Farrell, a lot bigger than Santa Claus (William Hartery, whose wise-ass Santa almost steals the show, but who's almost anemic looking next to Dose's robust Buddy), but Dose hoofs it like a veteran and sings sweetly. The best of the lot are teen McKenna Marmolejo, as Buddy's step sister, who is a delectable Broadway Baby, already holding the spotlight; Jessica Rush, as astringent Jovie who melts under Buddy's relentless cheerfulness and has a melting singing voice to match; and Julia Krohn, in the thankless role of office manager Deb, who has nothing to do in the show, but does it with utter charm and know how.
No one has anything to do in this show. It's all filler and quick reversal, then a song and dance routine. Rinse, lather, repeat. Obviously, you don't go to a musical that has a hero who has grown up at the North Pole thinking he's an elf as if it were Sondheim, but let's give the characters some pretense of motivation and development. That much hasn't gone stale since Rogers and Hammerstein. Adding contempo references, like Ipads, Al Gore, and PETA just stalls for time. (OK, I admit it, that joke about the reindeer was kind of funny.)
The little girl sitting behind me said everything when Elf was over. After Santa flew into the night sky, after Buddy embraced his sweetheart, after grouchy dad finally "got" the message of Christmas -- surprisingly, no one mentioned Jesus as a reason for the merriment -- and after the ensemble reprised yet another version of the song the creators hope will become a seasonal classic, "A Christmas Song," her mom asked, "Did you like it?" Pause. "Yeah, sort of."
The verdict: Yes, Virginia, there are better musicals. Is there a better Christmas one? No. Will Elf do? Sort of. Buddy the Elf's quest for a happy ending sings, dances, and smiles relentlessly through December 22 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at TUTS.com or call 713-558-TUTS. $24-$121.