By C.B. Adams
Unlike Uncle Ebeneezer, I don’t think of the holiday season as “A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!” In fact, as I have metaphorically buttoned my great-coat to the chin and headed out into the St. Louis holiday entertainment marketplace, I have been amazed at the plenteous plenitude of choices, from sacred to secular. I have willingly reached into my pocket and supported as many of these offerings as my wallet – and attention span – allowed.
In the final week of the frantic Big Day Fun Run came the fluffy flutternutter confection known as “Elf the Musical” for performances at the Fabulous Fox. There’s much proclaimed about Christmas being for children, but there’s a small dearth of holiday entertainment specifically for the tykes and tots (“Violent Night” and “Bad Santa” anyone?) And, that list gets even grinchier when you also want something that has meaning, depth and resonance for young and old alike.
If “Elf” had a wish list, it’s the latter niche that the musical adaptation of the 2003 movie would like to hold. It would like to be the Big Gift but turns out to be only a stocking stuffer. Ah, if only Buddy’s proclamation, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear,” weren’t so childishly naïve.
In the spirit of the holiday and transparency, I’ll admit that “Elf” has never been one of my top holiday entertainments. I endured repeated viewings as my sons were growing up, and I have always found the first half of “Elf” to offer the promise of a fulfilling, satisfying holiday movie that desperately wants to live up to the old Rankin/Bass animated specials that inspired screenwriter David Berenbaum.
But it’s merely derivative and adds up to a modest movie experience — that great snowball fight sequence notwithstanding (sadly not included in the musical). To borrow a phrase from that old Bentsen/Quayle vice presidential debate, I know Rankin/Bass and you, “Elf,” are no Rankin/Bass.
All the promise set up in the first half of the plot becomes mired in yet another holiday plot involving daddy issues Think about it: “Rudolph,” “Christmas Story,” “The Gathering,” and, I can even make the case for, “Meet Me In St. Louis.” What saved the movie was the stellar cast, and not just the man-child goofiness of Will Ferrell. “Elf the Musical” poses the same challenge with its clunky plot, wooden dialogue, generically forgettable songs and spotty, non-potty humor.
Throughout the Dec. 20th opening night, I repeatedly found myself rooting for the cast to save the show from itself – “C’mon, you can do it!” Much of that expectation unavoidably falls onto the lead character, Buddy. Cody Garcia’s Buddy is tall, gangly in a fun Jack Skellington sort of way and charmingly, smartly innocent. Their performance was not at all haunted by the Spirit of Buddy Past – Will Ferrell. With clownishly curled shoes and wrinkled tights, Garcia makes Buddy the character that connects with the young and young at heart. They were fun to watch, and it was a shame that their performance stood out even more just because of the lesser performances of their fellow performers.
Mark Fishback portrayed a flat Santa who lacked good joke timing and who couldn’t decide whether to be a grouchy Ed Asner, bumbling John Ratzenberger or rockin’ Kurt Russell type of not-so-jolly ole St. Nick. Christopher Robert Smith as Buddy’s biological father figure was bland and banal rather than a sharp, cynical foil to his son’s sugary sparkle. He definitely needed to channel some James Caan. Additionally, his dance moves were too much Mr. Roboto and not enough Christopher Walken. There was no authentic chemistry among most of the other characters, including between Caitlin Lester-Sams as Buddy’s stepmother and Jaxon James as his half-brother.
Other than Garcia, the other glittering performance was provided by Tieisha Thomas as Buddy’s love interest and a fellow Macy’s employee, Jovie. In addition to her nuanced, sassy-but-lonesome performance, her “Never Fall in Love (with an Elf)” was one of the best – and best-delivered – songs of the evening.
As a musical, the show’s tunes (Matthew Sklar, composer, Chad Beguelin, lyricist) aren’t bad, but they suffer from too-few moments of sustained wit and froth. Again, they disappoint by not living up to their potential. The exceptions were the opening “Happy All the Time,” “Sparklejollytwinklejingley” and the aforementioned “Never Fall in Love (with an Elf).” Another was “Nobody Cares About Santa” with its chorus line of kvetching department store Santas.
My mixed-bag reaction to “Elf the Musical” may, similar to Scrooge’s “undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato,” be caused by my expectation. As author Anne Lamott has said, “Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.”
I wanted to enjoy it more and I hoped it would improve upon the movie’s weaknesses. Perhaps my expectations were too high or off mark. Why did I think cold spaghetti with maple syrup had to be both delicious and nutritious? I may be, to borrow a line from Buddy, “a cotton-headed ninny muggings.”
But I’ll leave it to a youngster sitting behind me to have the last word. As Santa concluded his narration of Buddy’s life, he ends with “And they lived happily ever after.” To which the youngster (definitely under five) replied (in his outside voice), “I knew he was gonna to say that.”
Performances of “Elf the Musical” at the Fabulous Fox run Dec. 20-24. Show times are Tuesday through Friday evenings at 7:30 p.m. and Thursday, Friday and Saturday afternoons at 1 p.m. Tickets on sale now at MetroTix.com or by calling 314-534-1111. For more information, visit www.fabulousfox.com
CB Adams is an award-winning fiction writer and photographer based in the Greater St. Louis area. A former music/arts editor and feature writer for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, his non-fiction has been published in local, regional and national publications. His literary short stories have been published in more than a dozen literary journals and his fine art photography has been exhibited in more than 40 galley shows nationwide. Adams is the recipient of the Missouri Arts Council’s highest writing awards: the Writers’ Biennial and Missouri Writing!. The Riverfront Times named him, “St. Louis’ Most Under-Appreciated Writer” in 1996.