Asheville Community Theatre was packed on opening night and gleaming with holiday excitement as Elf: The Musical took the stage for the second year in a row. The production, which made its debut on Broadway in 2010, was written by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin with music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Chad Beguelin. Its ACT return runs through Saturday, Dec. 23.
The theatrical musical is based on the 2003 film version, Elf, memorably starring Will Ferrell, James Caan and Zoey Deschanel. The movie quickly gained distinction as a modern Christmas classic. Its adaptation to the stage is effective and mostly remains faithful to the source material.
After accidentally being transported to the North Pole as an infant, Buddy (Carson Fox in his reprised role) is raised as an elf by Santa (Greg Austin) and Mrs. Claus (Jessica Garland Lowe, who doubles as the show’s choreographer). Now an adult, Santa informs Buddy of his true identity and further reveals that his unknowing father, Walter Hobbs (Scott Cameron), lives in New York City. Buddy leaves the enchanted North Pole to find him. Stuffed in his stocking satchel is the only thing to guide him — a snow globe featuring the Empire State Building, where his father works. When Buddy arrives to Walter’s office, the sight of a flamboyantly dressed man-child elf does not sit well with Walter. When Buddy explains who he is and that he’s arrived from the North Pole, Walter and his staff think the visitor is mentally unstable. Can Buddy soften his workaholic father’s hardened heart, or is he destined to be orphaned all over again?
From its start, ACT’s production of Elf: The Musical is brimming with bright promise and jovial energy. It is both fun for children and, because of some innuendos, entertaining for adults. Lowe’s choreography in the production also helps adds a peppy quality to the songs. Standouts include ACT’s rendition of “Nobody Cares About Santa,” which is lively and fun, and the more touching number, “I’ll Believe in You.” The latter requires complete emotional surrender to land an effective delivery, which cast members Anderson Ford and Mara Breindel strived to achieve in their roles as Michael and Emily Hobbs, respectively.
Fox’s return to the role of Buddy seems inevitable. His expressions and big eyes instantly make you fall for the character. But his talent goes beyond the physical. The role requires balance. Had Fox played Buddy as a caricature, the entire play would have faltered. Furthermore, Fox has to present the character in a way that does not come across as psychotic. If his innocence were overplayed, this could have been cringeworthy. Without question, the charming Fox is undeniably wonderful here.
Elly Leidner also delivers a lovely performance as Buddy’s unlikely girlfriend, Jovie. There’s an ’80s vibe to her portrayal, calling to mind Mary Stuart Masterson‘s underdog role as Watts in the 1987 film Some Kind of Wonderful. Leidner makes her lovelorn character relatable and someone to root for. It’s a joy to see her in each scene. Because of her striking presence, Leidner has the potential to become a viable film star. Meanwhile, Zach Shackleford, a newcomer to ACT’s stage, is similarly alluring. He plays the gruff department store manager where Buddy winds up working. Here’s hoping we see more of Shackleford in productions to come.
While the brisk pacing is noteworthy, the production noticeably lost its traction just before intermission. It’s as if something backstage or unseen by the audience altered the high-flying energy of the performance. Because of this, the rhythm of the show was altered, and the acting onstage felt rushed and cautious. In particular, the momentous emotional explosion between Walter and Buddy lacked the powerful heart-rendering feeling needed to enter Act 2 effectively. This can happen sometimes in live productions and quite possibly was a fluke. Thankfully, the show regained its footing before too long, and the verve was restored.
Director Mark Jones does an incredible job adorning this production with immense spirit, alongside music director Kristen Johnson Dominguez. The costume design by Ida deserves considerable praise as well for its balance of realism and quirkiness. Additional kudos goes to the ACT for allowing cast members to keep their edgy, individual styles. For years in the performance arts, many actors did not earn a role because of unfair judgment linked to tattoos, piercings and hairstyles.
With the return of Elf: The Musical, ACT clearly has a holiday hit on its hands … again. And based on comments offered by staff during the curtain speech, it seems likely the production will return next year. More 2023 shows have already been added to accommodate public interest. And while this impulse to bring Elf back each year is understandable, one has to wonder what other great Christmas shows could be rotated in to keep it fresh.
But for now, Elf: The Musical is the holiday production. It has a big heart and dazzling production values, all of which sparkles like tinsel. Those who manage to catch a showing will experience a Christmas wish come true.
What: Elf: The Musical
Where: Asheville Community Theatre, 35 E. Walnut St.
When: Through Saturday, Dec. 23, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets $18-$36.50