When the film “Elf” opened for the holiday season back in 2003, it attracted considerable attention by having Saturday Night Live comedian Will Ferrell as a 30-year-old human named Buddy who has been raised since infancy in the care of Santa Claus — and believing he is an elf, if an overgrown one. There is an amusing scene early in this musical version in which six foot tall Buddy (Sebastian Arcelus) wakes up in a bed that he obviously outgrew about 25 years earlier and in a room designed in miniature. As the scene shifts to the toy workshop in the North Pole, also in miniature, we see that Buddy towers over the elves.
Thanks to designer Gregg Barnes’s appropriately whimsical costumes, we cannot see (but can rightly guess) that those playing the elves are dancing on their knees. This is a cute and clever beginning for a show in which cuteness and cleverness arrive with diminishing returns. This is largely attributable to disappointing efforts by Casey Nicholaw, who received a Tony for his work on “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Nicholaw must take the blame for both the general lack of spark in the choreography and in the staging that is apt to make many an adult just a little drowsy.
There is, however, no diminishment of our appreciation for the very pretty story-book-evoking settings that David Rockwell has designed and that incorporate some lovely projections and other visual treats. It is his contribution that remains in my mind the most laudable aspect of this show, including the ice-skating rink and Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, the exterior of Tavern on the Green, and the interior of a Chinese restaurant where seven working Santas are enjoying a dinner break offer diverting moments.
Even if you managed to avoid the film that was primarily aimed at young children and their parents, you have undoubtedly heard that it achieved enormous commercial success as well as cult status. Those cultists and others are now being offered a musical stage adaptation with a new book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin and a score by Matthew Sklar (music) and Chad Beguelin (lyrics). Whether or not there is any good reason to encourage it, “Elf,” the musical, will presumably join the roster of perennial holiday shows.
Last heard from as the collaborators on the Broadway musical “The Wedding Singer,” Sklar and Beguelin have sufficiently plumped up the simple story with songs that essentially come and go pleasantly enough without threatening the progress of musical theater composition. Meehan, the winner of three Tony Awards (“Hairspray,” “The Producers,” “Annie”) and Martin, who won the Tony for writing the endearing book for “The Drowsy Chaperone” may have used the original screenplay by David Berenbaum as a jumping off point. Too bad this collaboration doesn’t reflect the best or most imaginative efforts of either writer.
I would imagine that we can credit Meehan for Buddy’s remark, “I’m an orphan just like Annie.” With his red hair, employing a plethora of antic movements, goofy facial expressions, and an unremarkable voice, Arcelus conjures up memories of a young Danny Kaye. Read this as a compliment or not, but Arcelus delivers the kind of obligatory gregarious performance that one may expect from the displaced orphan who had, in his infancy, crawled into Santa’s toy sack and been whisked back to the North Pole. In the story, which I presume does not stray very far from the original, Buddy feels compelled to go back to New York to find his biological father and connect with humans after he realizes that he has no talent for making toys.
While still dressed in traditional elf garb and exuding his cheery demeanor, Buddy alarms the office workers in the children’s publishing firm in the Empire State Building where his father, Walter Hobbs (Mark Jacoby), is a rather dour and disagreeable executive. Failing to convince or connect with his father, who is on Santa’s “naughty list,” the homeless Buddy does ingratiate himself with his stepmother, Emily (Beth Leavel), and his young stepbrother, Michael (Matthew Gumley), and accepts their invitation to live with them. Leavel, who received a Tony Award for her title role in “The Drowsy Chaperone,” acquits herself professionally without having more than some modest opportunities to make something special of her role. She and a very talented and young Gumley (a member of the original cast of “The Addams Family”) share two reasonably enjoyable numbers: “I’ll Believe in You” and “There Is a Santa Claus.”
Much of the action follows Buddy’s interaction with the employees at Macy’s as they decorate the North Pole department in preparation for the Christmas holidays. Valerie Wright, another redhead and a dynamic and vivacious performer, stands out in the role of Deb, Mr. Hobbs’s secretary. She illuminates the stage in a way that makes us wish that she was the star.
As Buddy attempts to cheer up those he meets who don’t reflect the Christmas spirit, he also falls in love with Jovie (Amy Spanger), a very pretty employee who is relegated to displaying less cheer and optimism than anyone with her defining song “Never Fall in Love.” That she finally allows herself to be charmed by Buddy’s unwavering attention (“You be less elfy, and I’ll be less bitchy”) won’t come as a surprise.
Despite being book-ended by the jovial appearance of a rather untraditionally characterized Santa Claus (George Wendt) this is a musical that is astonishing in the way it otherwise revels in the ordinary and displays with glee what is generally known in professional circles as pedestrian.
“Elf,” through Sunday, January 2, Al Hirschfeld Theater, 302 West 45th Street. $39 to $137. 212-239-6200.