Dallas — The national tour of Elf the Musical wholeheartedly takes its own advice: “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is by singing loud for all to hear.” With a peppy cast, a brilliant palette of colors, a swingin’ score, and loads of delightful warbling, the latest tour to stop at Dallas Summer Musicals at the Music Hall at Fair Park is enough to make one escape the stress of the holiday season and believe in Christmas magic again.
Directed by Sam Scalamoni and based on the 2003 film written by David Berrenbaum, it follows the story of Buddy (Daniel Patrick Smith), the orphaned human raised by elves, as he leaves the comfort of the North Pole in search of his biological father Walter Hobbs (D. Scott Withers). During his trip to New York City, he charms his step-mother Emily (Gabrielle Mirabella) and half-brother Michael (Nicky Torchia), falls in love with department store worker Jovie (Maggie Anderson), and discovers that his quest to meet his father has turned into a greater mission of spreading Christmas cheer.
With a book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, the musical—which came to Fort Worth this time last year—sticks fairly close to the film without taking unnecessary detours. It’s not just a rehash of the Will Ferrell flick, though, as the source material is practically made to be a musical, with its exaggerated characters and child-like fantasy storyline. Additional material for the stage simply expounds on aforementioned plot points. Memorable elements from the movie appear, such as Buddy’s fascination with the revolving door and affinity for making paper snowflake chains. Actors bear a nice resemblance to their cinema counterparts, but all bring a slight, welcomed departure from the original characters.
It’s those performances that really make the musical stand out. Smith truly steps into his own as Buddy, with a dynamic range of postures, expressions, and line delivery. Opting for a quiet excitement and contained glee rather than the brash enthusiasm that Ferrell employed, Smith has an adorable awkwardness that’s sure to charm any Grinch.
As Buddy’s half-brother, Torchia delivers an optimistic performance of 12-year-old Michael without forcing the character or overdoing it. Vocals take on a genuine quality, and he manages to bring a depth to his character that belies his age.
Withers tones down the edges of Walter’s potentially rough exterior but still has a fire fitting of a stress, overworked executive. Mirabella delivers a delicious spunk and exudes a charming warmth in the moments with Torchia and Smith. As Walter’s assistant Deb, Audra Qualley livens up the office.
Santa (Ken Clement) and Jovie depart the most from their corresponding film personas. Clement’s depiction of Jolly Old Saint Nick is less idealistic with a tad more grump, but more humorous with laughable one-liners and even location-specific dialogue, like a quip about the recent Cowboys victory over Washington. The latter sharpens the exterior of a jaded single woman living in the Big Apple. Anderson displays a greater wariness of Buddy, and emotionally displays those feelings in a heartfelt “Never Fall In Love.”
One of the more impressive moments, however, comes from the ensemble, whose different characters require a greater variety of movement qualities than many other shows. They start out as elves walking and dancing on their knees to accentuate the height difference from Buddy, then transition to the busy, bustling mob of New Yorkers. As they transform into store workers, corporate employees, and grumpy fake Santas, all of which have intense dancing sequences, their impressive physical commitment to this show becomes astonishingly clear.
They have help, though, with a musical score by Matthew Skylar that’s made for dancing. Chad Beguelin supplies lyrics, and the two of them create some magical tunes, especially the musical’s signature “Sparklejollytwinklejingley”, which harkens back to the Golden Age of musical theater songs. Choreographer Connor Gallagher brings the music to life in every sequence, but the most impressive one is “Nobody Care About Santa,” with obvious nods to West Side Story’s “Cool” and Cabaret’s “Mein Herr,” a moment musical theater dance nerds will cheer for.
The experience really comes together with the visual picture. Scenic designer Christine Peters utilizes soft strokes and textures to enhance the warm, fuzzy feeling and subtly instill the child-like wonder, even in the harsher moments of the musical. Gregg Barnes’ costumes pop with radiant hues, and the two of them create stunning contrasts between the different settings.
A note of caution: while this seems like a show for all ages due to its focus on Christmas fantasies, some of the language leans towards the adult side, and DSM recommends this for children ages 8 and up.
Overall the musical is a dazzling display of holiday cheer, and you’ll likely be singing “Sparklejollytwinklejingley” for a few days.