Like a messily wrapped present forgotten under the Christmas tree, Elf the Musical has arrived at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts a week after its seasonal prime time and way short on charm, style and true holiday spirit.
Lanky star Matt Kopec has the tall order of erasing, or at least temporarily supplanting, memories of Will Ferrell as the oversized Buddy the Elf in the 2003 movie that inspired this 2010 Broadway musical. He does not.
Frenetic to the point that he sometimes seems possessed, Kopec goes in for over-the-top scenery chewing, which may be why Christine Peters’ “sets” are little more than unimpressive, pop-up book painted backdrops -- easier on the digestion. Whatever the cost of this non-union touring production, the Elf that opened on New Year’s Eve looks cheap, like a desperation gift bought on Christmas Eve near midnight at a drugstore.
Yes, it’s theoretically lovely that South Florida moms and dads have a family-friendly holiday show to experience with their dressed-up, off-from-school kids. And those kids do giggle at Buddy’s silly antics, as when he tops the breakfast spaghetti he’s sharing with his half-brother Michael (Tyler Altomari) with maple syrup. But Elf is no Lion King, and introducing children to sub-par live theater doesn’t give them the inspiring joy the art form can provide.
In crafting a stage musical version of Elf, writers Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin have gone for updating (Santa keeps his naughty-and-nice list, plus gift requests, on an iPad instead of hauling around an enormous book) and laugh lines that are already aging (Santa starts with a bit involving TiVo, Al Gore and global warming). Improvising, Santa adds that last resort of the desperate, local references (he admits that he once forgot to deliver presents to Tallahassee, a line that lands with a thud in Miami).
The songs by composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin are better, though there’s nothing that’s vying to become the next White Christmas -- certainly not Sparklejollytwinklejingley, the number Buddy and his Macy’s cohorts warble as they decorate the department store’s fake North Pole.
The story is generally the same one told in the movie, which featured a sweet and (for him) restrained performance by Ferrell. Buddy, accidentally taken to the real North Pole as a baby and raised by Santa and his elves, finally gets wise to the fact that he’s actually human. Santa sends him on a quest to New York to find Walter Hobbs (Matthew Alan Smith), the workaholic dad who never knew of his existence.
Unsurprisingly, the no-boundaries Buddy creates chaos in the lives of Walter, his wife Emily (Jane Bruce) and Santa-doubting brother Michael, but along the way he meets Jovie (Kate Hennies), a lonely single gal who takes a shine to Buddy, despite the fact that they’re, well, polar opposites. Eventually, lessons get learned, and it’s happily ever after time. The end.
Choreographer Connor Gallagher creates a mixed bag of dance numbers, including a snazzy ‘40s one for assorted seasonal Santas as they sing Nobody Cares About Santa and an awkward one for “elves” who hoof with shoes attached to their knees, their calves clearly visible behind them.
Director Sam Scalamoni pushes the cast to sell, sell, sell the material, as if peppiness will disguise the show’s weaknesses. No one obliges as completely as Kopec, who often sings with his eyes squeezed shut and his mouth fixed in a beaming smile.
Folks hoping for a final jolt of holiday cheer should probably look elsewhere. It’s 2014 already, and what Elf offers is too little, too late.