By Steven Suskin
03 Jan 2012
Just in time for Christmas, or rather just after Christmas, comes the original cast recording of Elf. This was the holiday musical from 2010, which — due to a booking logjam — managed not to get back to Broadway this time round. But should have. Elf was not the holy grail of Broadway musicals, and is no competition for, say, Sweeney Todd. But it was a "Sparklejollytwinklejingley" joy, to borrow a word from songwriters in search of "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." Hopefully, Elf will make it back onstage before Santa's next flight.
Based on the refreshing 2003 New Line movie starring Will Ferrell, Elf managed to replicate the cinematic charm to the stage. Sebastian Arcelus brought the right combination of boy/man to the developmentally frozen elf named Buddy, allowing the contrived-on-purpose plot to work. (This, mind you, was the precise trap that scuttled the big-budget musical disappointment of 1996, Big.) Elf, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, had just the right touch of nostalgia, corn, and satire — elements that were extended to the work of designers David Rockwell, Gregg Barnes, and Natasha Katz.
The show was somewhat marred by the use of too many reprises; five of the 11 songs were sung again, which usually signifies a lack of ingenuity and is in any event too high a percentage for comfort. On the CD, though, this is of minor import. The recording also allows us to appreciate just how good a job was done by music director Phil Reno and orchestrator Doug Besterman; the swing and jazz charts, especially, add to the festive mood. I expect that a larger-than-ordinary share of credit should go to dance arranger David Chase; three large-scale numbers — "Sparklejollytwinklejingley," "The Story of Buddy the Elf" and "Nobody Cares About Santa Claus" — are well routined and pretty joyous. The last, for a corps of unemployed Santas, is especially droll; someone — Sklar? Chase? Besterman? — had the daffy but inspired idea of turning it into a "St. James Infirmary" version of "Jingle Bells." Arcelus is joined by Amy Spanger, Mark Jacoby, Beth Leavel, Valerie Wright and a good child actor named Matthew Gumley. Also especially notable on two of the tracks is big-voiced Michael Mandell.
Elf was a family show, intended for family audiences but crammed with sly touches for the delectation of more sophisticated viewers. And no wonder: this is what director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw was doing while overseeing the final pre-rehearsal touches to The Book of Mormon. Theatregoers who do not have it in their genetic makeup to enjoy a musical where a kid and his mom sing a song about how there really is a Santa Claus are hereby given a pass; other listeners will find Elf a good old fashioned musical, full of real tunes. Closer to Mame, say, than Cabaret. But what's wrong with that? And don't we perennially need a little Christmas?
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