'Elf' conjures yuletide joy at Walnut Street Theatre

Posted: November 22, 2013

IT'S A good thing I thoroughly enjoyed "Elf," the musical-stage version of the hit 2003 movie that runs through Jan. 5 at the Walnut Street Theatre. If I hadn't, I'd likely have to surrender my membership in the human race.

That's because only the Grinchiest of Scrooges (or is that Scroogiest of Grinches?) could give a "Bah, humbug!" to this merry melange of yuletide music and mirth.

Like the film upon which it is based, "Elf" follows the misadventures of a bumbling but lovable North Pole denizen who, though raised from infanthood as one of Santa's elves, is actually a human being (hence his unusual height and inability to speedily and efficiently construct toys). But as joyous as the celluloid original may have been, the stage version is more so, thanks mainly to the wonderfully old-school music composed by Matthew Sklar.

It is with true holiday cheer I can report that Sklar's tunes forego the musical blueprints of most contemporary Broadway works. That means his toe-tapping score is devoid of the ersatz rock and self-conscious R&B that fill so many shows. Instead of Marc Shaiman-style modern sounds, we get lush melodies and clever constructions that could have come from Frank Loesser or Jule Styne.

Unfortunately, Chad Beguelin's lyrics are much more in keeping with current modes, tending more toward sung dialogue and exposition than actual "songs." But they are especially clever and certainly do their intended job of propelling the story.

Everything else about "Elf" is likewise agreeable, starting with the smart, funny and appropriately schmaltzy book by Broadway heavyweights Thomas Meehan ("Annie," "The Producers") and Bob Martin ("The Drowsy Chaperone") that is lightly scented with nods to "Miracle on 34th Street" (including scenes set at Macy's New York flagship store). Sure, the story is pure frothy fantasy, but what do you want at Christmastime, Henrik Ibsen and David Mamet?

Marc Robin's peppy direction and loose-limbed choreography, and the vivid, primary-color-drenched sets and costumes conjured by Robert Andrew Kovach and Colleen Grady, respectively, add to the fun.

"Elf," of course, was conceived primarily as a vehicle for Will Ferrell. Which means anyone surveying the role of Buddy the Elf has some pretty large pointed shoes to fill, but Christopher Sutton is certainly up to the task.

Sutton effortlessly carries the show on his green- velvet-draped shoulders, providing a winning turn as the 30-year-old man-child with a heart of gold who is yearning for the love and security only a real family can provide. He proves to be a fine song-and-dance man in the comedic tradition of Dick Van Dyke and Matthew Broderick, equally adept at broad humor and pathos. And that he doesn't play the role with the kind of Robin Williams-on-speed nuttiness the part could lend itself to is a bonus.

The rest of the cast is likewise congenial and deft, with Kate Fahrner as Jovie, Buddy's once-bitten, twice-shy love interest, and Charles Pistone as his type-A dad (who is inevitably destined to have his own heart melted by the son he never knew existed) earning special mention. There is also an-impossible-to-dislike brigade of kids onstage, led by Malvern Prep's J.D. Triolo, who covers all the right bases as Buddy's half-brother, Michael, a youngster with his own emotional holes to fill (and who splits stage time with Doylestown's Tyler Hentz).

Bottom line: With its unambiguous, unironic, fish-out-of-water story, toe-tapping music, happy-feet choreography and reaffirming message, "Elf" is precisely the kind of show they supposedly don't make anymore. And that's as nice a gift as we can hope for this theatrical season.

Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., show times vary, $95-$20, 215-574-3550, http://www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

'Cooking' in Pitman

If you missed the extended run of the music-comedy-drag-culinary arts production, "Cooking With the Calamari Sisters," earlier this year at Society Hill Playhouse (or if you want to see it again), be advised that it's back for a quick hit Nov. 29 at the Broadway Theatre in Pitman, N.J.

The presentation - which is set during a local-access-channel broadcast of a TV show hosted by two Brooklyn sisters (played with over-the-top glee by Jay Falzone and Stephen Smith as Delphine and Carmella Calamari, respectively) has been seasonally retooled and is called "Another Christmas with The Calamari Sisters: Feast of the Seven Fishes!"

Broadway Theatre, 43 S. Broadway, Pitman, 2 and 8 p.m., $40 and $30, 856-384-8381, www.thebroadwaytheatre.org.

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