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Theater Review: “Elf the Musical” at the Kennedy Center

The cult 2003 Will Ferrell comedy gets a musical spin in time for the holidays.

Will Blum as Buddy the Elf in Elf the Musical. Photograph by Joan Marcus.

Will Blum is an energetic and capable performer, so it’s hard to put a finger on exactly why he’s a poor fit for the title character of Elf the Musical. The chief issue: Instead of emphasizing the innocent, childlike nature of a 28-year-old who thinks Santa is real, Blum occasionally inches towards the creepy.

This means Buddy the Elf’s tentative love scenes with the acerbic Macy’s store clerk, Jovie (Lindsay Nicole Chambers), seem unconvincing at best, and the show’s double entendres take on a cringe-worthy air. It’s a complicated problem for a show to have, and perhaps not a surprising one. One of the strengths of the movie, Elf, was the way it used singular iconic performers like Blum’s counterpart Will Ferrell (not to mention the great Peter Dinklage, whose role is eliminated here) in ways that played to their comedic strengths and general presence. Ferrell’s size and unique manic delivery made Buddy work. In this version, the characters feel flimsy, and even a talented cast struggles to flesh them out further.

The general outline of Elf’s story isn’t a bad one for a tourist-friendly, seasonally appropriate musical clearly targeting the young theatergoer set and their parents. Here’s the gist (which gets summarized in fun, frantic fashion during Act Two’s “The Story of Buddy the Elf”). As a baby, Buddy finds his way from an orphanage into Santa’s bag of toys and is raised at the North Pole to be an elf. When his true human identity is revealed, he ventures to New York to seek out his cranky, Christmas-hating, workaholic dad Walter (Larry Cahn). His assimilation into his new family doesn’t go smoothly, but he manages to invest all of cynical New York City with some Christmas spirit along the way.

For the most part, Elf sails by quickly, with energetic and sugary appeal. A bonus: many of the show’s iconic lines (“You sit on a throne of lies!” says Buddy to a Santa stand-in) hold up well in translation. Its songs, by composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin, for the most part are pleasant but unmemorable, although their placement within the plot’s development is sometimes forced. But there are high points, including “Nobody Cares About Santa,” an amusing, well-choreographed number set in a Chinese restaurant with a chorus of shopping mall Saint Nicks. “I’ll Believe In You” is a simple, sweet ballad that pulls at the heart strings while Walter’s wife, Emily (the delightful Julia Louise Hosack, the cast’s standout) and son, Michael (Noah Marlowe) ask Santa for a work-free day with Dad.

Elf’s frequently two-dimensional, gaudy sets from Christine Peters lend an amateur feel to some of the show’s scenes. The show’s greatest strength is its choreography. With the exception of one awkward staging decision (to contrast the elves’ height with Buddy’s, the North Pole players perform on their knees), Elf’s dizzy, intense dance scenes are a delight, with something different and dazzling happening on every portion of the stage. Elf has its issues, but the show can’t be accused failing to entertain. It’s a syrupy confection—Buddy himself would approve.

Elf the Musical is at the Kennedy Center through January 5. Running time: About two and a half hours, plus an intermission. Tickets ($35-$150) are available via Kennedy Center’s website.