At one point in "Elf the Musical," the Christmas-themed Broadway show adapted in 2010 from the hit 2003 Will Ferrell movie, a lonely, cynical urbanite named Jovie observes that any single girl in New York who is going out on a lot of dates should reduce her expectations and avoid disappointment.
At that deeply philosophical moment, Jovie, who is played by the excellent Lindsay Nicole Chambers on this seasonal national tour, is cavorting about town with a weird guy in an elf suit who claims to have been raised among elves at the North Pole. She is, such evidence would suggest, even in the universe of holiday musicals, pretty desperate.
Still, Jovie is ready to believe this Buddy the Elf dude can snag her a table at Tavern on the Green, the height of Christmas dreams in Noo Yaark. And why not?
Her advice about expectations made me think about my own expectations for "Elf" and how, on balance, the show that opened here Tuesday greatly exceeded them.
"Elf," certainly, is not reinventing the form of the Broadway musical, nor does it have the earthy charm of "A Christmas Story: The Musical," which is an excellent seasonal attraction I am very much hoping will return to Chicago.
At times, the always-arch "Elf" feels like a kinetic mashup of "Shrek," "Big" and "Miracle on 34th Street" (to name a few), although it does have the good sense to poke fun at its derivative nature (you might say it quotes rather than copies), and even at lyricist Chad Beguelin's own lousy rhyming scheme. At one point in a peppy little number, "Philadelph" is the rhyme, forcing Chambers to swallow, hilariously, the "ia."
And, be warned, this is not a show that will return you and your brood to a purer holiday era — Santa Claus, who is the cellphone-toting narrator of "Elf," name-checks Starbucks, Al Gore, Amazon.com and the Northwestern Wildcats, all in about the first five minutes.
But, you know, if you're looking for a big, reasonably glitzy, urban-mythologizing, feel-good downtown show that is a good time, requires no cognitive investment whatsoever, has quite a few decent tunes and comes replete with broad appeal for everyone from 6-year-olds to seniors, "Elf" likely will exceed your expectations too. There are a couple of reasons.
Tom Meehan ("The Producers") and Bob Martin ("The Drowsy Chaperone") co-wrote the book for "Elf" and are just really amusing writers. This show is stuffed with good gags, including a particular favorite of mine when Buddy the Elf, generally a smiley chap, comes up with a deep frown when someone mentions Los Angeles.
"I've never heard of it," he says. "I don't think Santa goes there."
The show also features an exceptionally droll number, set in a Chinese restaurant (another reference to a competing Christmas show) wherein a bunch of department store Santas lament the change in the wired children who come to sit on their knees. Actually, there were many moments when my row Tuesday at the Cadillac Palace Theatre let out the kind of titters that must seem a million miles away if you're reading this at a delay-stricken airport right now, wishing some elf could show up to fly you home. "Elf the Musical" really is very funny. And warm.
This particular production, which is directed by Sam Scalamoni and choreographed, amusingly, by Connor Gallagher, also is stuffed with Broadway character actors. The producers NETworks shrewdly put out two tours of "Elf" out at once this holiday season: a non-Equity production, headed to smaller cities, and a top-flight Equity tour, which is the one they wisely booked in Chicago.
Since the Equity tour is short-term — nobody wants to see "Elf" in March — it clearly was easier than usual to snag some really stellar talent, from Kevyn Morrow to Julie Kotarides to, the star of the show, Will Blum, who comes to Buddy the Elf from "The Book of Mormon" and who really nails an incredibly difficult role, mostly by building a consistently weird and annoying character and committing to it, come what may.
It's really a clever (and gutsy) satirical creation and it tickled me throughout, especially in the sweet-and-sour scenes Blum has with the sardonic Chambers.
Elsewhere, so did Laurent Giroux, a brilliant comedic talent and veteran of many road tours over the years, and who here plays the industrial villain of the piece who comes, alas, from Chicago. As so many of them do.
You don't see the likes of Giroux, or of Larry Cahn, another unstinting character actor with years of big-time experience, in nonunion shows, which is why that difference is so crucial. And unlike some other downtown shows this holiday season, a full orchestra plays Matthew Sklar's lively, chirpy, big-band score, a fine fit for all these scenes of snow, skating and Central Park at Christmas, and all those laments on the struggles of being out with an elf in the big city.
When: Through Dec. 15
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Tickets: $18-$162 at 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun