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Review: This musical 'Elf' spreads Christmas cheer despite baffling changes from the movie

Review: This musical 'Elf' spreads Christmas cheer despite baffling changes from the movie
Matt Owen, left, as Buddy and Bryan Dobson as Santa in Musical Theatre West's "Elf" in Long Beach. (Caught in the Moment Photography)

Rule No. 1 of musical theater is to send ’em out the doors energized.

For Musical Theatre West’s staging of “Elf: The Musical,” that means a finale packed with tap-dancing Santa’s helpers, cheerily making noise in curled-toe elf shoes. This spectacle caps a sparkling, high-tech production at Carpenter center in Long Beach that is the first by a Southern California regional company since the show hit Broadway in 2010 and passed through Riverside and Costa Mesa on tour.

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Trouble is, much of what comes before in the 2-hour, 25-minute presentation, which plays through Sunday, lacks the magic of the 2003 movie headlined by Will Ferrell. The stage version’s big-name adapters lost focus on the innocent, bedtime-story sensibility of the movie about Buddy, an orphan human raised at the North Pole by Santa’s elves, who as an adult ventures into bustling New York City to look for his birth father. Parts of the plot are altered and adult-pitched humor is needlessly injected, some of it steeped in innuendo that not only spoils the mood but also is borderline inappropriate for the audience’s sizable youth contingent (which showed up for an opening-weekend matinee looking too adorable for words in Santa-themed jackets, sweaters and dresses).

Fortunately, the Musical Theatre West team knows how to keep an audience happy, glossing over structural problems by sustaining the spirit of irrepressible optimism that has always been this story’s chief stock in trade.

The director-choreographer is Peggy Hickey, who choreographed the Broadway productions of “Anastasia” and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.” Her sense of fun is evident from the start, as dancers portraying Santa’s elves move in rhythm on their knees, enabling Matt Owen as Buddy to tower over them, accidentally elbowing them in the face or running along the line with high-fives, knocking them over like a row of dominoes. (Lest you fear for their knees: By the tap-dancing finale, the performers are on their feet.)

Owen is chief purveyor of the production’s optimism, navigating grouchy New York with a child’s sense of wonder and an ever-present grin. He giddily leads the show’s best songs — “Sparklejollytwinklejingley” and “A Christmas Song” — which, as their titles imply, spread seasonal joy through the stage’s jaded urban masses and on into the audience.

A Manhattan office, a department store Santa land and more — in Christmas-y colors — glide seamlessly on- and offstage in Paul Black’s scenic design, with enormous projections by Hana Sooyeon Kim as children’s book illustration-like backdrops.

Vocally, the cast of nine principals and 16 ensemble members is invigorated by pure-voiced, 12-year-old Travis Burnett as Buddy’s stepbrother, amber-toned Kim Huber as stepmother, smooth-powered Ashley Moniz as love interest and chipper Cynthia Ferrer as Dad’s secretary. Dennis Castellano conducts a lively 15-member band.

The cast of "Elf: The Musical" at Musical Theatre West.
The cast of "Elf: The Musical" at Musical Theatre West. (Caught in the Moment Photography)

The material’s problems are not the songs by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin (“The Wedding Singer” and Broadway’s current “The Prom”), which bounce along with Jerry Herman-like sunniness. Rather, the chief drawbacks are changes made to the movie’s structure and tone, including the inexplicable deletion of Papa Elf, Buddy’s foster father, so lovably played in the film by Bob Newhart, and a storytelling recalibration that now rushes from the North Pole, giving the audience too little opportunity to witness the cheery but pragmatic environment that instills Buddy’s uniquely buoyant worldview.

A flat-footed script by Thomas Meehan (“Annie,” “Hairspray”) and Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone,” “The Prom”) aims purported humor at adults that is (a) unnecessary, since the movie’s grown-up fans delight in the same gentle comedy that entertains the youngsters, and (b) is not the least bit funny. Sample: “Santa hasn’t used reindeer for years and years. Ever since he got that nasty letter from PETA.”

And why is the first half of Act 2 so padded? Kids are bound to get restless as the story detours to a Chinese restaurant filled with exhausted rent-a-Santas, then eavesdrops on the forlorn love interest.

Still, a key sentiment remains intact: The story laments the public’s diminishing belief in Santa — i.e., the spirit of the season — and sets about trying to re-instill it.

Cue the tap-dancing elves.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Elf’

Where: Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E. Atherton St., Long Beach

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday; ends Sunday

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Price: $20-$117

Info: (562) 856-1999, Ext. 1, musical.org

Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes

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