REVIEW: ELF The Musical at the Arvada Center
by Owen Niland
Full disclosure: I live with a Christmas fanatic. August sees holiday planning list appear; when looking for a new apartment, foremost on his mind was “Where will the trees fit?!?!” (yes, ‘trees’, plural); and our holiday overlay stays up from Black Friday until Epiphany is barely a memory.
Now, most people would cast me as the Grinch in this situation – grumbling about the time wasted, the expense of the ornaments, the diabetic shock from all the baked goods – and they would be right. But, the upside to living with a tried and true eggnog-in-their-blood Christmas fanatic is that their joy is contiguous. The bright light of their Christmas spirit can’t help but make we Scrooges smile and find the wonder of the season we may have lost in the day-to-day grind and stresses of the holiday.
Anyone who lives with a Christmas fanatic will undoubtedly see a familiar wild-eyed mania in Buddy, the titular elf of ELF – THE MUSICAL, now playing at the Arvada Center. The musical, based on the 2003 blockbuster comedy starring Will Farrell and written by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin with music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Chad Beguelin, is singular in its effort to inspire Christmas cheer in the face of hard hearted Scrooges (like me) who would rather be, well frankly, anywhere but at a musical based on a 15 year-old Will Farrell vehicle
Arvada’s production, similar I’d expect to any production of the musical, hinges on how the audience responds to Buddy, the boy separated from his family and raised by Santa and his elves at the North Pole. Here Buddy is played with wide-eyed wonder and eternal optimism by Josh Houghton. Giving off a much younger vibe than Farrell’s wild man-child, Houghton’s tall and slender frame brings a clown-like charm to a performance geared to engage the children in the audience more so than the adults.
While Houghton’s charm eventually wins over (or wears down) even bah-humbugs like me and his character-filled voice brings an enjoyable quirkiness to his numbers, I felt that the physicality in his dancing and musical staging was overshadowed by the strong ensemble of dancers and movers around him.
Houghton is supported by Colin Alexander as our story-teller Santa, Mark Devine as Buddy’s estranged dad Walter Hobbs, Maria Couch as Walter’s wife Emily Hobbs, Tyler Fruhwirth as son Michael Hobbs (on the night I attended), Leslie Hiatt as Macy’s retail-elf-worker and love interest Jovie, and, in a small but scene-stealing role, Sharon Kay White as Hobb’s assistant Deb.
Under the choreography of Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck, Arvada Center’s as always robust ensemble of dancers delight, bringing magic to the stage in their many varied roles. Between playing diminutive north-pole elves, to put upon retail-elves slaving in Macy’s SantaLand, to out-of-work Santa Clauses of varying quality in the particularly memorable “Nobody Cares About Santa”, among many others, I lost count of the number of costume changes the ensemble undertook, a credit to costume designer Phoebe H. Boynton.
Director Gavin Mayer along with Scenic Designer Laura K. Love, Lighting Designer Bryan Hudson and Sound Designer David Thompson have crafted a serviceable production design to escort us and Buddy from the North Pole, the seven levels of the candy cane forest, the sea of swirtly-twirly gum drops, and finally through Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan. Relying on projected backdrops in the style of a children’s’ book and a few nifty set pieces, we feel connected to the magic of Buddy’s journey.
One issue I had in the design was with the projections, and it’s not one limited just to this show or Arvada’s stage alone. Although projection screens are an inexpensive method for theater companies to create a number of locations on stage, the images projected are often washed out by the surrounding stage lights, making the effect less impactful than actual backdrops.
The musical direction, undertaken by Christopher Babbage was enjoyable. Of particular note were Hiatt’s simple interpretation of Jovie’s second-act torch song “Never Fall In Love (With An Elf)” and the wordplay of “Sparklejollytwinklejingley”; however the score itself is simply not up to par with other stronger Christmas musicals like Scrooge or White Christmas. It’s disappointing to leave a big musical not humming a tune to yourself.
On the whole though, the Christmas fanatics at the Arvada Center have pulled together a fun, family Christmas show sure to delight children, their fellow Holly-Jolly Heads, and even melt the heart of the bah-humbugs in your group.
Get ready to laugh and love with ELF – the Musical, playing now through December 23, 2018. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30pm, with matinées on Wednesdays at 1:00pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00pm, through December 23. To purchase tickets, and for additional details, go to https://arvadacenter.org/elf-the-musical or call 720-898-7200.