According to Buddy Hobbs, aka Buddy the Elf, the diet of his pointy-eared North Pole friends consists of candy, candy canes, candy corn and syrup.
Well, Kole McKinley, currently playing the role of Buddy in Surflight Theatre’s “Elf The Musical” through Dec. 16, had better stock up on the elves’ four basic good groups because he must burn up 20,000 calories a performance.
McKinley’s manic energy leads an almost equally energetic cast in a show that, with intermission, lasts about 2½ hours, but is so upbeat it seems to fly by in 30 minutes. One’s attention never drifts while taking in this production with its performers working at a pace that would keep even the most demanding Boss Santa happy.
Let’s put it this way: McKinley’s portrayal of Buddy makes Will Ferrell’s Buddy in the 2003 movie appear sedated.
The musical’s book, by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, follows David Berenbaum’s film script quite closely, although there are a few significant changes. The role of Papa Elf, for example, so wonderfully played by Bob Newhart in the movie, has been eliminated, with Santa taking over as the musical’s narrator.
Buddy, who arrived at the North Pole after crawling into Santa’s bag of gifts as a baby, has been raised as an elf. But it is apparent to everybody except Buddy that he doesn’t quite fit in. Buddy is huge compared to the other elves and he is inept when it comes to toy making, which, let’s face it, is a Christmas elf’s raison d’etre.
When Buddy overhears other elves saying he is actually a human he is stunned. Santa (a convincing Dale Given) tells Buddy his backstory, how he was orphaned after his mother, Susan Wells, had died, and how his father, Walter Hobbs (Broadway vet John E. Brady), doesn’t even know he has a son. Mr. Claus tells Buddy his father lives in New York City and sends him on his way with a snow globe of the Empire State Building pinpointing Walter’s location.
Buddy survives his long trek, even somehow safely making it through the Lincoln Tunnel on foot. But will the Big Apple, and, more specifically, Walter, his wife Emily (Marci Reid) and his son and Buddy’s much younger half-brother Michael (talented newcomer Mitchell Critelli), survive Buddy?
Walter is especially at peril. He heads the New York office of a publishing house that specializes in children’s books and his Chicago-based boss, Mr. Greenway (Andrew Foote), is not happy that his last publication was a huge flop, mostly because the last two pages didn’t make the final product, leaving parents complaining. Greenway tells Walter he’d better come up with a bestseller or else.
Buddy, who, despite now knowing he is a human, simply cannot stop acting like an elf – you can take the elf out of the North Pole, but you can’t take the North Pole out of the elf. He unwittingly causes mayhem in Walter’s office and home. Walter thinks he can save his job when two assistants tell him they have found an unpublished work by Miles Finch, a children’s book author who makes Dr. Seuss look like a sales lightweight. But Buddy runs the manuscript through a shredder to “make snow,” seemingly dooming his desperate father.
He also makes life miserable for the manager of the toy department at Macy’s (Andre Dion Wills), where Buddy is mistakenly taken for an elf employee. Buddy causes quite the scene when he indignantly exposes the Macy’s Santa as a fraud.
Buddy, however, does amazingly find a girlfriend, Jovie (Jenny Stodd), a Macy’s elf whom Buddy at first mistakes for the real thing. In another departure from the movie script, more attention is paid to Buddy’s and Jovie’s developing but complicated relationship, which provides some depth in an otherwise madcap book. The role of Deb (Adrianne Hick), Walter’s secretary, has also been expanded, for the good.
So, does it all work out for Buddy, his newfound family and for Santa, whose sleigh crashes in Central Park on Christmas Eve? Come on, “Elf” is a musical comedy; I won’t be giving anything surprising away to say all is good in the end. But the joy is in the details, which I won’t expose here.
As said earlier, it is the rapid pace of the show, directed by Paula Hammons Sloan, that makes it stand out, that plus the fact I couldn’t find a performer who didn’t do an outstanding job. What, no complaints? Can I call myself a critic anymore?
OK, just to maintain my standing as a respectable critic I will say that Matthew Sklar’s music was, as it had been in this summer’s Surflight production of his “The Wedding Singer,” eminently forgettable. But it was lively, so when combined with Hammons Sloan’s crisp direction and choreography, it kept the show moving. Plus I’m starting to be amused by lyricist and frequent Sklar collaborator Chad Beguelin’s lyrics.
“Elf the Musical” isn’t great theater. But it is great fun and can keep even a Grinch-like critic from becoming jaded.
Tickets for “Elf” are $39 for adults and $29 for children 12 years of age and younger. They may be purchased online at surflight.org, by phone at 609-492-9477, or at the box office in Beach Haven.
— Rick Mellerup