Mark Fishback (Santa), Cody Garcia (Buddy), and Company in ELF The Musical. Photo by Jeremy Daniel, 2022.
Since it first debuted in 2003, the movie Elf, starring Will Ferrell, has become a verified Christmas classic. And, while it’s hard to believe the film is nearing the two decade mark, it’s a fitting choice for a Broadway musical of the same name. That musical, under the direction of Sam Scalamoni, is onstage now at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) and is fully equipped to delight a whole new generation of viewers.
This so-good guilty pleasure of a musical opens with none other than Santa Claus (Mark Fishback) himself, much to the delight of young viewers at Tuesday’s opening night performance. Among the squeals of “It’s Santa!” and "I know him!" the on-stage Claus opens up his storybook and proceeds to tell the strange-but-sweet story of Buddy the Elf (Cody Garcia).
For those few not in the know, he’s the adopted son of Santa, born of humans and raised at the North Pole. Once he learns the truth of his identity, he ventures to New York City to find his biological father, workaholic Walter Hobbs (Christopher Robert Smith). As expected, Buddy doesn’t quite fit into this world of jaded non-believers, but his belief in himself and in the power of Christmas end up making all the difference.
The musical introduces Buddy through a silly song, “Happy All the Time,” in which Santa expresses his frustration with Buddy’s extreme cheer. And, from there, the fun just continues, thanks in large part to Garcia. They create a Buddy that’s as adorable, childlike, and endearingly believable as Will Ferrell himself. And, when Buddy finds himself at none other than Macy’s at Christmas-time, there’s a frustrated (and scene-stealing) store manager, humorously portrayed by Jerquintez Alonzo Gipson, to contend with. However, there’s also sweet but world-weary Jovie (Tieisha Thomas), a department store “elf” whom Buddy falls in love with at first glance. And, as Buddy tries to win her affection, as well as the love of his hassled father, calamity, chaos, and a whole lot of Christmas cheer ensue.
The whole heartwarming story plays out with help from Connor Gallagher’s quirky, energy-infused choreography and cartoonish sets that pay homage to some of NYC’s most iconic sites. Viewers are treated to creative recreations of the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, and even well-loved food carts, making the show a celebration of not just Christmas, but the city at Christmas. And, while this is a nice nod to the film version, the addition of songs and the colorful performances cast this tale in a whole new light.
In fact, there’s a lot of “new” to love here. Thomas’ pint-sized Jovie adds enhanced depth and delight to her character. Plus, when you finally get to hear her sing, it’s well worth the wait. Likewise, Jaxon James, as Buddy’s little brother, and Caitlin Lester-Sams, as Buddy’s step-mom, Emily, evoke a sense of camaraderie and chemistry that puts viewers in their corner and more firmly aligns them with Buddy and his mission.
To top it all off, there’s snow, glittering Christmas lights, and over-the-top costumes. In short, there’s everything you could possibly want or expect from a Christmas musical. If you need something fun, light, and every bit as sweet as Buddy’s syrupy spaghetti, be sure to check out this “Sparklejollytwinklejingley” musical before it leaves the DPAC stage on December 4th.
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