Tony Award winner John Rando (Urinetown) directs Tony nominee Connick Jr.'s family-friendly musical, which began Nov. 28. This is the world premiere of the expanded musical, seen earlier in a developmental production in Kansas City.
The project was inspired by a Connick song that was fleshed out as a 2005 animated TV special. The stage project was then developed. The book is by Fishman, with music and lyrics by Connick. Richard Carsey is music director.
Rando called this production "a classic, old-school tryout."
"This play is most appreciated by adults, teens and young people ages four and older," according to First Stage.
Connick is a Grammy Award-winning and Tony Award-nominated composer and lyricist (Thou Shalt Not). Performances play the Todd Wehr Theater in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water Street in downtown Milwaukee.
According to the company, "This musical version of The Happy Elf is the latest evolution of a notion that began as a song on Connick's best-selling 2003 CD 'Harry for the Holidays.'"
The composer stated, "I had this idea of an incredibly enthusiastic elf in Santa’s workshop, and after that, it was just a matter of sitting down and putting words and music to it."
The animated NBC television special and subsequent DVD followed, leading to this stage adaptation. It premiered as a workshop production in Kansas City's Coterie Theater Lab for New Family Musicals. First Stage managing director Rob Goodman, who attended the Missouri run, stated, "We saw the great potential, especially in the phenomenal music. What a great way to introduce kids to jazz. We wanted to take it to the next stage of development."
Rando stated, "It felt like there were four or five potential holiday standards that Harry had created [for the TV project]. At the same time, given its origin as a television special, there was simply not enough music in the earlier version. We needed to find places in the story where plot and character could be related in song, which was the key."
Working with Andrew Fishman, who wrote "The Happy Elf" for TV, Rando and Goodman developed a revised version and presented it to Connick in a reading last May. Connick liked it so much he wrote six additional songs. Further work over the summer led to the nine-character play, with on-stage accompaniment by a jazz trio.
Here's the plot: "The musical tells the story of Eubie, a North Pole elf whose constant exuberance can wear others out. Eubie's overly optimistic outlook is put to the test when he decides to bring Christmas joy to the sad little town of Bluesville, which has fallen into a state of permanent blues. If Eubie can fix Bluesville, he may win a coveted spot on Santa's sleigh team."
Of Connick, Goodman said, "Because of his own family, he understood how a musical of this type must work for kids of different ages as well as for their parents. And his feeling for children is so strong that we realized two of the characters had to be kids, for Harry."
"There is a hunger from the public for a show like this, with a strong message about friendship and caring and delightful, surprising music," Rando said. "As the father of a seven-year-old, I'm as excited as anyone that there's a play that both he and I can enjoy."
The animated holiday special featured the voices of Harry Connick, Jr., Lewis Black, Carol Kane and Mickey Rooney. The special aired nationally in November 2005 and has gone on to become a top selling holiday DVD.
The creative team includes choreographer Wendy Seyb, scenic designer Beowulf Boritt, costume designer Kärin Kopischke, lighting designer Jason Fassl, sound designer Josh Schmidt.
Bassist is John Dominguez, percussionist is Patrick Morrow.
The cats includes Jared Gertner as Eubie, with Laurie Birmingham, Paul Helm, Hannah Laird, Michael James Leslie, Bryce Lord, Harris Doran, Beth Mulkerron and Todd Denning, plus kid actors Jacob Bern, Alec Aldred, Madison Kitchen, Rachel Schmeling, Alyssa Sylvester, Allie Babich, Teddy Warren, Teddy Warren, Lydia Rose Eiche, Shanna Sweeney, Trevor Olds, Justin Gaworski, Emilie Thomas, Jessica Schmeling, Kira Patterson and Erin Stapleton.
For more information, visit www.FirstStage.org.