Two years after Buddy the Elf made Broadway audiences believe in an unlikely theatrical adaptation of a Will Ferrell movie — an adaptation without Ferrell — "Elf" the musical is back with yet another lead actor and all the joy we've come to expect from the industrious toy-maker in green tights.
The splashy holiday musical opened Sunday at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre with a new opening number and fresh faces in a few principal roles.
It's also worth noting what hasn't changed, the core members of a stellar creative team that made this show a welcome addition to the holiday season when it premiered in 2010 for a brief run at the same theater.
The book, adapted by Tony Award winners Thomas Meehan ("The Producers," ''Hairspray") and Bob Martin ("The Drowsy Chaperone"), preserves many of the familiar punch lines you'll remember from Ferrell's hilarious 2003 film. Yet somehow this production doesn't have the feel of a show that was plucked from the screen and retrofitted for the stage.
Rather it plays like a faithful but fresh revival of a golden-age Broadway musical, with its artfully towering sets, large company and lush arrangements of traditionally jazzy songs by Matthew Sklar (music) and Chad Beguelin (lyrics).
Jordan Gelber ("Avenue Q," ''All My Sons") spreads a wealth of good cheer as the always-grinning, irresistibly likable Buddy, who as an infant, crawled unnoticed into Santa's sack and stowed away to the North Pole, where he was raised as one of the "big guy's" little helpers.
All grown up now, the not-so-little Buddy leaves the workshop on a quest to find his "human" family in New York, where Christmas spirit is in such short supply that the whole city has been naughty-listed. (Gasp!)
Gelber embodies the arresting appeal of Buddy's childlike innocence and charm, as he adjusts awkwardly and comically to life in the big city.
Striding into his dad's office, his first day in "human work clothes," he greets co-workers with his own brand of cheerful professionalism. "Good morning, Sarah. That's a nice purple dress," he says earnestly. "Very purplie."
Gelber follows Sebastian Arcelus, who was the first to adapt the role Ferrell made famous.
There's also a new Santa Claus. Two years ago, the role was played by "Cheers" star George Wendt. The current production deviates from the Norm, but maintains the sitcom flavor in casting a new man to fill the big red suit — Wayne Knight of "Seinfeld" fame.
The most important returning member of the 2010 production is its director Casey Nicholaw (Tony winner for "The Book of Mormon"), who also choreographs this slickly attractive spectacular.
Nicholaw teams with a who's-who of creative talent that includes the set design of David Rockwell ("Hairspray," ''Catch Me if You Can"), costumes by Gregg Barnes ("Follies," ''The Drowsy Chaperone") and lighting by Natasha Katz ("Once," ''The Coast of Utopia").
The result is a stocking-stuffing array of eye candy, fluid motion and vibrant color (with strong leanings toward red and green, of course).
Those expecting to laugh as much as they did at the movie won't be disappointed. What might come as a surprise is just how polished these songs and arrangements are, particularly the larger-than-life opening number at Santa's workshop and several scenes in a very strong second act.
Buddy clicks with an ensemble of supercool Santa impersonators on the bluesy, brassy "Nobody Cares About Santa Claus," a raucously fun song-and-dance in a Chinese restaurant.
In the role of the Buddy's stepmother, Beth Leavel shares one of the show's most rousing numbers in the wordy, breathless "There Is a Santa Claus," an upbeat duet with the elf's 12-year-old brother, played by impressive star-on-the-rise Mitchell Sink.
Leslie Kritzer ("Sondheim on Sondheim," ''A Catered Affair") is lovely as Jovie, Buddy's romantic interest, an attractive but sulky grinch of a girl who refuses to sing despite Buddy's prodding. Luckily for us, he ultimately succeeds when Krtizer reveals her stunning voice on the catchy swing tune "Never Fall In Love," which she sings under the stars and an enchanting elm tree illuminated in lights and hanging lanterns.
The return of "Elf," which is at the Hirschfeld through Jan. 6, is just the thing for the Christmas list of any kid or grown-up. There's no telling when we'll see Buddy again in New York, but one can only hope it's the beginning of a holiday tradition.
Holiday shows can get away with murder. They have familiar subjects, a captive audience and a limited run, so too often they don’t try as hard as they should.
When it first appeared a couple of years ago, “Elf — The Musical” fit that pattern. The sluggish, saccharine-sweet adaptation of the 2003 Will Ferrell movie wasn’t bad enough to qualify as a lump of coal, but it didn’t make you wish for a return ticket in your stocking.
But there’s been a Christmas miracle on Broadway, because the retooled “Elf” that reopened last night is a startling improvement. Zippier and funnier, the show is now a bona fide treat.
The most obvious and most welcome change is the arrival of Jordan Gelber. A cross between Josh Gad from “The Book of Mormon” and Jonah Hill, Gelber is a whirlwind of infectious joy in the title role.
A 30-year-old naif who was raised on the North Pole by Santa (Wayne Knight) and his diminutive employees, Buddy the Elf doesn’t realize he’s human. When he arrives in New York to search for his real father (Mark Jacoby), he sticks out — not because of his green felt outfit and pointy shoes, but because he’s a relentless optimist who believes in the magic of Christmas.
Gelber (who once played Brian, the would-be comedian and stray human in “Avenue Q”) delivers wicked line readings. “Is he insaaa-aaane?” Buddy wails of his father, the elongated syllable rising and dipping like a roller coaster. He’s no slouch when it comes to physical comedy, either: You won’t soon forget the way he shovels spaghetti into his mouth.
Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw (“The Book of Mormon”) had the good sense to keep the best performers from the first incarnation — including Beth Leavel as Buddy’s stepmother and Valerie Wright as an office manager — and to find excellent replacements for others.
Leslie Kritzer (“Sondheim on Sondheim”) is her usual sharp self as Jovie, Buddy’s co-worker at a store’s Santaland. As the big man himself, Knight has the same manic undertones he brought to Newman in “Seinfeld.”
In the bright opening number “Happy All the Time,” Santa complains, “When they sing until they’re bluish/Santa wishes he were Jewish.”
That song is new, by the way — just one of the many examples of the tinkering done by Nicholaw and the whole creative team. Some numbers were moved around, Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin’s book flows better, and the pace has picked up.
One wishes the choreography had perked up as well: It could use more pizzazz. Let’s put that on our wish list for the next edition of “Elf.”
New York stages, on Broadway and off, seem more clogged than ever with seasonal fare, and making an impression in this sentiment-drenched field is becoming increasingly difficult. The musical “Elf,” back on Broadway for a two-month run after first materializing there in 2010, has an additional burden in that it is also competing against itself.
The show is based on the 2003 movie of the same name, which as the years go by feels more and more like a keeper for the ol’ holiday DVD collection, with a charmingly goofy performance by Will Ferrell as Buddy, the human who is raised by elves, and great supporting work from Zooey Deschanel as his love interest, Jovie, and especially James Caan as his father, Walter.
In the remounted Broadway show, which opened Sunday at the Al Hirschfeld Theater, Jordan Gelber, one of several new cast members, draws the thankless job of trying to make fans of the movie forget Mr. Ferrell. He and the director, Casey Nicholaw, never quite find a comfort zone for the character the way that Mr. Ferrell did. The Ferrell Buddy is a lovable, convincing fish out of water when Santa sends him to New York to find his father. The onstage Buddy (Sebastian Arcelus played the part in 2010) is sometimes naïve, sometimes perceptive and too often uncomfortably close to mentally disabled — an awkward mix that makes it difficult to buy into the whole “Elf” fantasy.
The love story within “Elf” also isn’t well served here, having been pared down considerably to make room for all the generic holiday songs. Leslie Kritzer’s Jovie has to warm up to Buddy — overweight, socially awkward, of dubious intelligence; what’s not to like? — in too much of a hurry.
But the show does have just enough nice supporting performances and successful comic moments to amuse easily amused kiddies and leave grown-up ticket buyers grumbling no more loudly than they would after any of the other holiday shows. Mark Jacoby, returning in the role of Walter, may not be Mr. Caan, but he’s a steady professional, and Beth Leavel, another returnee as Buddy’s stepmother, knows what to do with the many laugh lines her character is given in Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin’s book.
The resident celebrity is Wayne Knight — Newman from “Seinfeld” — who makes a respectable Santa, though he isn’t around much. (George Wendt of “Cheers” was the 2010 St. Nick.) A youngster named Mitchell Sink shows off a fine singing voice as Michael, Buddy’s stepbrother.
Although no new holiday standards are likely to emerge from this show, a couple of the musical numbers do have a respectable zing. (The music is by Matthew Sklar, the lyrics by Chad Beguelin.) The second act opens with a funny number called “Nobody Cares About Santa” featuring a bunch of grousing department-store Clauses who have gathered for a bite to eat in a Chinese restaurant.
And yes, for those keeping track, that makes two holiday-in-a-Chinese-restaurant scenes currently on Broadway, because a block over and a block up from “Elf” a musical version of the Jean Shepherd gem “A Christmas Story” is playing. “A Christmas Story” also has a live dog (two, actually), just like “Annie,” another Broadway show with a Christmas theme. There’s a message in those duplications perhaps. Holiday cheer is swell, but theatrically, at least, maybe it’s starting to be spread a bit thin?