New York: Who needs Will?
That might be the typical reaction from theatergoers after seeing the Broadway musical "Elf," a show that remains true to the 2003 Will Ferrell movie but stands on its own with great sets and design, a funny adapted script and a collection of hardworking actors. It simply doesn`t need Ferrell in tights.
That`s largely due to a top-notch, behind-the-scenes team that features songs by Tony Award-nominees Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin ("The Wedding Singer"), a book by Tony winners Thomas Meehan ("The Producers," "Hairspray") and Bob Martin ("The Drowsy Chaperone"). They`re only the top of a talented group that also includes David Rockwell`s set designs and Gregg Barnes` costumes.
Sebastian Arcelus steps into Farrell`s role of Buddy and creates his own delusional 6-foot-3 elf who leaves the North Pole in search of his human father in Manhattan. Arcelus, who until now has mostly replaced other singers in shows like "Jersey Boys" and "Wicked," plays Buddy as a cheerful simpleton amazed by New York who manages to perk up everyone he meets.
Mark Jacoby slips into the James Caan role as Buddy`s grumpy, workaholic dad, horrified to discover he has a 30-year-old son who thinks he`s an elf. Amy Spanger, who was in "Rock of Ages" as Sherrie, plays Buddy`s jaded love interest with aplomb, wiping away the memory of Zooey Deschanel in the movie. Spanger has an amusing torch song with "Never Fall in Love."
As good as Jacoby and Spanger are, Beth Leavel, who plays Buddy`s step mom, and Matthew Gumpley, who plays Buddy`s 12-year-old half brother, are absolutely lovely together, singing two of the best songs — "I`ll Believe in You" and "There Is a Santa Claus."
The production, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw ("The Drowsy Chaperone" and "Monty Python`s Spamalot") is a tight, polished, expensive-looking affair that has enough jokes for adults and enough special effects for kids. And The Rockettes have some serious competition this Christmas season with the musical`s tap-dancing Santas who hide out at a Chinese restaurant.
Meehan and Martin have been somewhat handcuffed by the seven-year-old movie, but still manage to keep the show topical: Santa (George Wendt from "Cheers") keeps his naughty-or-nice list on an iPad; and at Macy`s, where Buddy first spots his future girlfriend and goes bananas, the store manager (a hysterical Michael Mandell) responds, "OK. Cool down. Don`t go all Charlie Sheen on me." People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also gets some ribbing from Santa for ending his use of reindeers.
Other now-classic lines from the movie are intact, such as Buddy`s PG-rated swear "cotton-headed ninny-muggins" and when he confronts the department store Santa by hissing, "You smell like beef and cheese."
The design team hasn`t stopped with just the sets: The outside of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on 45th Street is wrapped like a huge Christmas present sporting candy canes. Inside, the North Pole resembles an Advent calendar and New York landmarks such as the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center have been realized with flair. Projections by Zachary Borovay of snow and cartoon deer are sparingly used.
Nicholaw`s choreography is a throwback to classic Broadway, sometimes with a twist, as when the secretaries and managers who work for Buddy`s dad swivel their own cubicles and pound out a rhythm on their desks with their fists.
The musical`s ultimate themes are the same as the movie`s, namely getting everyone in the Christmas spirit and finding a place where you belong. This show definitely belongs on Broadway but it won`t last. It ends its run Jan. 2.