There's a bright shiny present under our Houston theater Christmas tree and its name is Dan Knechtges.
Artistic director of Theatre Under the Stars, director/choreographer Knechtges has re-animated, re-imagined, and resuscitated the rather ordinary seasonal musical Elf (2010) into an exceptionally enjoyable bundle of heartfelt holiday joy. It's a Christmas miracle and is the family show to see this abbreviated season. (As long as you're aware that “holiday” implies “all about Santa.” That certain babe in a manger – pretty much the reason we celebrate – is never mentioned in any Broadway Christmas musical. The Great White Way only knows leggy Rockettes, sparkly trees, spinning Nutcrackers, and Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Never, ever, bring religion onto the stage if you want a successful seasonal run.)
Elf - the Musical (2010) never had a successful run on Broadway, even though its creators are lauded showbiz pros. The music's by Matthew Sklar (The Wedding Singer, The Prom); the lyric's by Chad Beguelin (Aladdin); the book's by Thomas Meehan (Annie, Hairspray, The Producers, Young Frankenstein) and Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone, The Prom); and the direction/choreography was by Casey Nicholaw (Spamalot, The Book of Mormon, Mean Girls). It was an impressive roster for any show.
Elf seemed destined for stardom since it was based on the hit holiday movie starring Will Farrell, his first big screen debut after leaving his star-turn on TV's Saturday Night Live. The film was feel-good, quirky, and suited Farrell's loopy Everyman persona. The original Broadway version was all capital letters – Pizzazz. Dance routines. Nice but Generic Songs about Family, Happiness, and then more Pizzazz and Dance routines. After 57 performances during Christmas rush, Elf deflated, only to return in the 2012 holiday season after major botox. Still no classic, it was further retooled for the touring company, but no magic happened.
What TUTS does to Elf is nothing short of the great prestidigitation, including Quinn VanAntwerp's adorable Buddy, the human raised by Santa, who thinks he's an elf. His performance is wonder-filled. He fills the stage with such joy, such unabashed innocence, such love of performing and knowing just what to do – that whenever he's not on stage, the show grows smaller. We don't want subplot, we want more Buddy!
Act II works better because it moves faster, if possible. Who can beat that opening number, “Nobody Cares About Santa,” where disgruntled Santas – at a Chinese restaurant, naturally – bemoan kids' lack of belief in them. It's Elf's showstopper, a rousing '50s blues pastiche that recalls Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls. With Buddy, the dispirited Santas shimmy and boogie, a chorus line in frayed red and white.
Putting on a show has never looked like so much fun. There's no reason you shouldn't join in.
Buoyed by an old-fashioned, tuneful Broadway score, Knechtges beguiles with constant motion, a perpetual mobile. There's not a dull moment anywhere. Obviously, you don't go to a musical that has a hero who's grown up at the North Pole thinking he's an elf as if it were Sondheim, but this TUTS production is fairly definitive and should be the blueprint for all future touring productions. Matthew Smucker's set design is a glittering eye-full, gliding off and on like a dream; Colleen Grady's costumes radiate good cheer; Yael Lubetzky's lighting is warm and inviting; and Andrew Harper's soundwork is clear and distinct, no small feat in the cavernous Hobby.
Aside from innocent VanAntwerp, everyone shines equally — not an easy task to fulfill for any director. Knechtges makes it all seem so easy. Michael Halling, as gruff over-worked father, may be a stereotype writ large, but he brings his character close to earth; Julia Krohn's step-mom has that warm and solid Broadway voice that is sadly going out of style; Raven Justine Troup, as astringent Jovie whose hard shell melts under Buddy's relentless cheerfulness, is a joy to watch and listen to; Brian Mathis, as corporate bigwig Greenway, surprises with some very snazzy dance moves which almost stop the show; little Carlos Garza, as son Michael, is already an ingenue Broadway Baby, with many TUTS productions on his formidable resume; and Simone Gundy, as gal-Friday Deb, showcases her spot-on comic timing with snappy reactions and lovable little moments.
The score is a classic example of old-fashioned Broadway pizzazz. How we've missed it. The arrangements swing, like '60s Sinatra 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 Loesser with bits of Lorentz Hart and Dorothy Fields. When mom and son 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.
Are there better musicals. Yes, of course. Is there a better Christmas one? In TUTS' sure hand, yes,Virginia, there is a Santa Claus!
Performances continue through December 22 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com. $40-$139.