Elf the Musical – Theatre Review: Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

Despite its mixed reviews, when the Broadway seasonal hit Elf The Musical opened at London’s Dominion Theatre in 2015, incredibly it became the fastest selling show in the theatre’s eighty-nine-year history.

Because of the country’s issues and its divisive political turmoil, a new Christmas musical with no messages to deliver, just a heap of seasonal good cheer, was precisely the kind of diversion the country needed. It was the right show at the right time. Which helps explain the packed house on opening night at Phoenix Theatre and the early rise of healthy ticket sales. Forget this Thursday’s turkey dinner. It’s Elf the Musical one week earlier than Thanksgiving that’s officially kicked off the valley’s Christmas season.

Due to the enormous popularity of the 2003 big screen version, which, like Ralphie and his beloved BB gun in A Christmas Story, has become a perennial movie favorite, audiences will naturally notice differences. There’s no Papa Elf telling the story. On stage, it’s the big guy himself, Santa (Gene Ganssle) who enters stage-right in his corner man cave, ready to greet the audience. After a problem with the remote control and his Tivo, plus a reminder for audiences to turn off all cell phones and unwrap that hard candy (he crumples the noisy wrapping while humming Do You heart What I Hear?) Santa proceeds to tell the tale of Buddy the Elf, who was clearly no elf at all.

The musical’s story arc is much the same as the film. As an orphaned child on his hands and knees, Buddy made the mistake of crawling unnoticed into Santa’s sack of gifts. He was whisked off, back to the North Pole, which is where Santa discovered the child, but by then it was too late to take the boy back. Instead, Santa and Mrs. Claus (Amie Bjorklund) raise the child, but not as their own – as an elf, which was fine when Buddy and the Christmas elves were pretty much the same sizes, but after thirty years of living deliriously happy in Christmastown, being six-foot-plus can appear somewhat suspicious when the average height for an elf is less than half that size.

Not that Buddy (Toby Yatso) notices. It’s only when he overhears a remark stating that he’s human and not an elf when everything changes for him. “I’m an orphan!” Buddy declares. “Just like Annie.” His mother, Santa informs, passed away, but there is a father. The only problem – horror upon horrors – is that Buddy’s father is on the naughty list. He doesn’t believe in Santa Claus! So Buddy, in full oversized elf costume, heads south, floats from the North Pole on an iceberg, reaches land, and walks his way to Manhattan, determined to find his dad and be the son the New York businessman never knew he had.

Another difference from the adaptation of film to stage is the character of Buddy’s father. Walter Hobbs (Chris Erikson) may still have the same publishing problems of failing to come up with a children’s Christmas bestseller in time for the holidays, but he’s not as mean-spirited as James Caan played him. Hobbs is now a little softer around the edges making him far more palatable. And ultimately it’s Erikson’s warm performance that makes the character easier to like. He’s not so much work-obsessed, he’s simply overworked and fears he may lose his job, which distracts him at Christmas from his wife (a perfectly wonderful Debby Rosenthal) and his son (played on alternate performances by either Corban Adams, Kylan Chatt, or William Richardson). Buddy’s arrival at his downtown office telling him he was sent by Santa only complicates things further.

Instead of a modern pop/rock score, Elf the Musical is pure Broadway with a fine, seasonally tuneful sounding score from Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin. For the record, the theatre’s program lists the opening introductory number as Christmastown that was part of the original lineup, while the Phoenix Theatre production uses Buddy’s Broadway revival replacement, Happy All The Time.He’s freaky happy,” adds Santa.

Writers Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin have done well adapting the screenplay to stage, incorporating the story’s family-friendly silliness with some occasional laughs for the grownups. Rosenthal’s mom has a heart to heart with her son regarding Buddy stating that when a child believes in Santa, that’s fine, but when he’s thirty, “That’s profoundly disturbing.” But later when she gets to meet the real Santa, she suddenly goes weak-kneed like a fan backstage at a Take That concert and tells the big guy, “I really liked you in Miracle on 34th Street.”

Director D. Scott Withers, who played the part of Hobbs in both the 2015 and 2016 national touring productions, keeps the show tightly reigned with an outstanding cast of valley talent. In addition to Erikson, Rosenthal, and Ganssle, Jenny Hintze charms as Buddy’s love interest, Jovie, while Anne Lise Koyabe steals her scenes as Hobb’s secretary Deb. The woman finds no end of amusement when discovering that the tall guy in the elf costume is actually her boss’ son.

Even the large ensemble, many of whom play dual roles, shine with familiar and welcome faces, including among others Alyssa Chiarello, Laurie Trygg, Eddie Maldonado, Matravius Avent, and Amie Bjorklund, who makes such a perfect looking Mrs. Claus that the casting agent at Radio City Music Hall might do well to make a phone call.

But at its center is Toby Yatso, a performer of an inexhaustible drive. With his tall, lanky, lean appearance, he’s Jiffy the Broomstick Man (look him up) in Christmas green and curly-toed boots with a performance so high in energy his light shines brighter than the tree at Rockefeller Center. If there were audience members who entered thinking only Will Ferrell could ever be Buddy the Elf, within seconds of Yatso bouncing on, the SNL comedian has already faded from memory. Will who?

When Buddy takes a Salvation Army worker’s bells, instead of them simply ringing, he makes them play Carol of the Bells as if performed by a full hall of professional bell ringers. For a moment it seems like something supernatural has just happened. If he can do that, are there other magical powers in his possession that could help solve his father’s problems? The answer, of course, is no. It’s just some funny stage business. And dad’s deadline of having to come up with a new Christmas bestseller by midnight, Christmas Eve is odd when you consider the 24th is the actual end of the season’s shopping season. But Elf the Musical is so full of candy-coated, tinsel-covered goodwill that it’s easy to overlook some of the story’s shortcomings and just go with the yuletide flow.

The show runs now until December 30. See it this week and you’ll get an early start to the season. See it in the middle of its run and it’ll be a welcome relief from the bustle of Christmas shopping. Or see it in the last few days during the Christmas week and it’ll bring all the warmth and the good cheer of the holiday. Like that production that broke records in London’s West End and continued to run past it’s Christmas due date, once again it’s Elf the Musical at Phoenix Theatre that truly is the right show at the right time.

Elf the Musical is performing now until December 30 at Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography

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