Most people interested in seeing Elf the Musical are probably intimately familiar with the 2003 film, Elf, starring Will Ferrell that has become a staple of many holiday celebrations. Originally adapted to the stage in 2010, the story follows a 30-year-old elf named Buddy who discovers he’s actually a human and travels to NYC to meet his real dad.
I’m explaining this to people, like myself, who didn’t grow up watching this movie every single year. The rest of you are only here to see if the translation is gonna ruin your childhoods, and if you should drop the coin to take the kids to the Dock Street Theatre this holiday season.
The movie makes a fairly precise translation to the stage, barring a few things that would prove technically difficult to pull off in front of live audiences. This is the very definition of playing it safe. Even the songs are as middling as possible to be light and consequence-free without throwing off the story beats most audience members will remember.
At a certain point I started to wonder if they weren’t just all different lyrics to the same arrangements, because a lot of the numbers start to sound identical as the proceedings roll on. “Sparklejollytwinklejingley” is probably the best song (and a very fun ensemble number choreographed by Cara Dolan) of the bunch. “A Christmas Song” is the only most likely to end up stuck in your head because it just keeps coming back.
Cody Rutledge, tasked with the unenviable job of playing the cinema and holiday icon Buddy the Elf, is not Will Ferrell. That’s not a criticism; Rutledge is making the character his own and it serves the world of this musical far better than an impression ever would have. His is a far more elf-ish Buddy than even Ferrell provided, allowing this childlike fairy to slide effortlessly into the song and dance of the musical world.
He’s got an impressive voice and a seemingly endless well of manic energy that makes him the most watchable thing onstage at all times. If you give him a chance and accept that he’s not trying to “do Will Ferrell,” as I worry some audiences might, he’s very good in the role.
The only person who manages to draw attention away from Rutledge and command, nay steal, scenes is Colin Waters as the Macy’s manager who accidentally employs the hapless Buddy. Waters is a powerhouse character actor who leaves it all out there on the stage. And boy can he move! Waters may end up being your MVP.
Set design by Kimberly Powers is festive and colorful. So are the costumes by Eric Hall. The biggest special effect is Santa’s sleigh (are spoilers even a thing for a show based on a 16-year-old movie?), which cruises around the stage in the second act. For a show built on the concept of the literal magic of Christmas, I wanted some stage magic a little grander. Something that may have sent me and the kids home with a “Wow” moment or a lasting memory.
Ultimately, this isn’t a show full of many of those. You’ll be bringing your own lasting memories with you based on your connection with the source material. Everyone else is in for a musical, no more no less.