Few holiday movies give such cinematic chestnuts as "It's a Wonderful Live" and "White Christmas" a real run for their money, but, every now and then, one takes off. In 1983, it was the wry, nostalgic "A Christmas Story." Twenty years later, it was the cute, disarming "Elf" with Will Ferrell.
Like "A Christmas Story," "Elf" was transformed into a musical about three years ago and has enjoyed a good deal of success.
The show, which tells the story of a sweet, super-naive orphan named Buddy who is raised in the North Pole and travels to New York in search of his father, has played Broadway a couple times since 2010. There was a national tour last year and a second is on the road this season.
The 2013 tour involves two separate productions, one featuring members of Actors' Equity Association and the other with a non-Equity cast. The latter comes to Baltimore this weekend for an engagement at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, featuring locally trained actor Gordon Gray in the role of Santa, a role he also played in the first tour.
"This show is very similar in many ways to 'Miracle on 34th Street' — a fellow in jaded New York meeting a workaholic family, turning a child into a believer in the spirit of Christmas," says Gray, who grew up in Towson, where he studied theater and eventually taught it at Towson University.
The actor praises the ensemble in this production — "I have every reason to believe ours is just as good as the Equity one," he says — and particularly Matt Kopec, who stars as Buddy.
"He reminds me of Danny Kaye," Gray says. And no wonder.
The Ohio-born Kopec grew up on classic MGM musicals starring the likes of Kaye and Donald O'Connor. He also grew up with plenty of Christmas spirit.
"'White Christmas' is my all-time favorite movie," Kopec says. "I watch it all year round. It's in the vein of who I am, and I channel that into 'Elf.' So, in a way, I'm living out my dream."
Kopec is the first to admit that he does not resemble the original Buddy.
"I'm not a 6'2" giant like Will Ferrell, but with the magic of theater, I'm 6-feet," the actor says with a laugh. "And I think the essence of the character people know from the movie is still there. Buddy is still terrified by elevators and revolving doors, and still eats spaghetti sprinkled with maple syrup."
Above all, Buddy helps to impart the lessons behind any holiday show worth its weight in candy canes, lessons about giving and caring. As Santa, Gray gets to underline those messages in the show.
"When you put on the snoot and the hat and the beard, it's amazing the effect Santa has on people," Gray says. "It turns everyone into a kid. Everyone who grew up with the Christmas traditional secretly wishes Santa was real. So you have an obligation to do a good job. There's a high level of expectation when you're Santa."
There were high expectations for Gray when he started his acting career in Baltimore, performing with such companies as Corner Theatre, Center Stage, and Spotlighters, as well as Baltimore Theatre Ensemble, a short-lived venture affiliated with Towson University, around 1970.
"Gordon was one of the most fun and flexible persons in the group, and a terrific, solid character actor," says Lynn Summerall, a producer of that ensemble.
Gray, who was a professor at Barnard College in New York before returning to the boards a couple decades ago ("There is politics in the theater, but not nearly as bad as in academics"), finds "Elf" a good fit.
"It's just a lot of fun," he says. "I think this musical is going to be a great new Christmas tradition."Performances of "Elf the Musical" are Friday through Sunday at the Modell/Lyric.