Sebastian Arcelus and company in Elf
( © Joan Marcus)
Sebastian Arcelus and company in Elf
( © Joan Marcus)
Santa's helper Buddy the Elf, the title character of the blockbuster 2003 movie that starred Will Ferrell, has leapt from the screen to the stage with relative ease in the new Broadway musical Elf , now playing a limited run at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. The show, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, is packed with some terrific performances -- most notably, the lovably gawky, clarion-voiced Sebastian Arcelus, who makes for a winning hero -- and plenty of holiday spirit.

Without question, the show certainly delivers the message about the importance of family and believing in miracles that echoes throughout popular culture at this time of year. But while the musical often proves to be amusingly diverting, it somehow never manages to win theatergoers' hearts or imaginations as thoroughly as one might hope.

The show concertedly strives to win one's affection as it tells what happens to Buddy (Sebastian Arcelus) after he learns that he's not really a 30-year-old elf -- the fact that he towers above his friends has never clued him in -- but is a human, who has been raised at the North Pole after he crawled away from his now-dead mother and ended up in the sack of one Santa Claus (George Wendt, who delivers a nice dose of naughtiness).

With this newfound knowledge, Buddy sets off to New York City to reconnect with his dad. Walter Hobbs (a stalwart Mark Jacoby), a Scrooge-like children's book publishing executive, who has little time for his wife Emily (Beth Leavel) and his teenage son Michael (Matthew Gumley), let alone a nearly middle-aged goofball in an elf suit.

Much of what's best in the show actually centers on Walter's neglected family. In the first act, composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin serve up a gorgeously bittersweet tune, "I'll Believe in You," which Leavel and Gumley deliver simply and sweetly as mom and son write a letter to Santa. And, later on, with the exuberant "There Is a Santa Claus," which follows the moment when Emily and Michael have caught a glimpse of Santa's sleigh over Manhattan, audiences are simply bowled over.

Audiences may also feel somewhat similarly about the bluesy torchsong "Never Fall in Love," which Amy Spanger as Jovie, the disillusioned young woman whom Buddy instantly falls for and to whom Buddy gives a modicum of hope, delivers with an astute combination of melancholy and irony.

Nicholaw's staging and dances have a showman's sense of razzamatazz to be sure, but it often feels as if he is attempting to invoke memories of Christmas television variety shows from the mid-1970s. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in "Sparklejollytwinklejingley," a big production number in which Buddy tries to inspire his co-workers at Macy's Santa's Village, which seems to want to bring to mind the frivolity of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" from Mary Poppins, but merely cloys with its hard-hitting brashness.

In a similar vein, Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin's book, while admirably streamlining the film's story for the theater and setting the stage for songs, has some wincingly hoary jokes and a strained self-referential quality. For example, after Buddy has learned about his past, he exclaims: "And I'm an orphan...Just like Annie."

David Rockwell's scenic designs -- a mixture of brightly colored drops, side panels and rolling units -- not only keep the production moving at a good clip, they also cleverly evoke children's book illustrations. His exceedingly handsome work -- the interior of Macy's is particularly eye-popping -- is lit with panache by Natasha Katz and complemented beautifully by Zachary Borovay's projection designs.