It's not Christmastime until Zooey Deschanel shower-duets with Will Farrell to "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Unfortunately that scene was nixed for the stage adaptation of the cult holiday hit film Elf, but Buddy's overgrown Yuletide spirit is alive and well at Paper Mill Playhouse where the musical Elf and its first-rate cast will be spending the Christmas season.
It's hard to believe it's been over a decade since Elf joined our annual lineup of holiday movies, and four years since Thomas Meehan, Bob Martin, Matthew Sklar, and Chad Beguelin first brought their musicalized rendition to Broadway. Audiences and critics alike seem to agree that no amount of song and dance can recapture the comic lightning in a bottle that became so many people's favorite Christmas tradition. Nonetheless, the stage version brings plenty of the film's original offbeat charm to a solidly constructed musical that will leave you hard-pressed to resist a smile or two, no matter your loyalties to the source material.
James Moye drives the sleigh as Buddy, the orphaned boy who crawled into Santa's sack one fateful Christmas Eve and was raised as an elf, despite a size differential to suggest a different gene pool. When he discovers his true father goes by the name of Walter Hobbs and works in New York City's Empire State Building, he travels to the Big Apple, snow globe in hand, to reclaim his human family for the holidays. His dreams of sugar plums and hand-holding, however, are dashed when he learns his father (a perfectly deadpan Robert Cuccioli) is a bitter book publisher with no Christmas spirit.
Subtle humor isn't exactly an option when you're playing to the balcony and leading a chorus of Santa Clauses in an oversize elf suit. Moye, however, manages to find that sweet spot of innocent charm that wins over the crowd, along with his Christmas elf Jovie, a damaged Macy's employee played by Kate Fahrner. Her acerbic retorts to Buddy's advances are at first less than biting, but Fahrner eventually comes into her own with the song of romantic regret "Never Fall in Love."
Also joining Moye in the Hobbs clan are the comically spot-on Heidi Blickenstaff, who hams up the holiday cheer as Walter's neglected wife, Emily — and the wholesome, pure-voiced Jake Faragalli as her son Michael, who partakes in a few bowls of spaghetti and maple syrup with his new older brother. This adorable mother-son pair sing the sweet duet "I’ll Believe in You," while writing their letters to Santa, and later partake in the song "There Is a Santa Claus," featuring a big belting finish by Blickenstaff that will roam around in your head for days to come.
Eric Ankrim directs a sharp production, vibrantly adorned by set designer Matthew Smucker and costume designer David C. Woolard, who create a distinctly Elf-ish winter wonderland on the Paper Mill stage. Josh Rhodes' energetic choreography suits the overstated musical, with a jazz-infused score by Sklar and Beguelin, also known for their other campy film-to-stage transfer The Wedding Singer. These tunes will not make the archives of musical-theater classics, but their pleasant melodies and catchy, character-filled lyrics successfully service the show's lovably quirky vibe. Maybe it's something in the green velour, because — inanity and all — Elf can't help but delight.