'Buddy, the Elf', The Musical
Spriet Stage at London, Ontario's Grand Theatre
Dahlia Katz. As Santa: Aadin Church. As Buddy: Izad Etemadi
For some this Christmas and holiday season, ‘Elf, the Musical’ might come across as rather sweetly saccharine with so much gooey goodness yanked from the Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas movies.
To those who may think this:
“Lighten the hell up, will ya?”
We’ve had two-plus years of shutdowns, lockdowns, mask-wearing, and social distancing. Two of the most joyous times of the year in our lives have been pared and scaled down. It’s Christmas. It’s the holiday season. It’s time for all that sugary sweetness in songs and actions.
If ‘Elf, the Musical’ can bring even one iota of joy back in the same manner as ‘Miracle on 34th Street’, I say ‘Amen’.
Christmas music plays as we enter the Spriet auditorium. I could hear many around me singing and humming the songs, so it appears no one is tired yet of the music. I really liked the see-through and transparent scrim with the Christmas tree upstage centre. When I sat down and studied the stage, a grandiose setting has been established so applause to designer Scott Penner. I thought this might be Santa’s workshop.
And it is.
Aadin Church’s Santa Claus breaks the fourth wall and narrates the story of the protagonist, Buddy, the Elf. We are at the North Pole in the workshop, fourteen days before Christmas, where the elves are busy making toys and wrapping gifts for the big day. As Santa waits for the arrival of his in-laws, he wants to tell a Christmas story.
This is where we meet the awkward Buddy Hobbs (a beaming, sprite-like and bright-eyed Izad Etemadi) As a young orphan child, Buddy crawled into Santa’s sack of toys one Christmas Eve and returned to the North Pole. Upon discovering baby Buddy, Santa and the elves decide to raise him as an elf. While the preparations are going on for Christmas, Buddy learns he is a human. At Santa’s insistence, Buddy travels to New York to meet his father, Walter.
Buddy learns his blustering, blow-hard, workaholic, children’s book writer and father Walter (adroitly played by Shane Carty) is on the naughty list while his fifteen-year-old daughter, Michelle (lovely work from Riley DeLuca) would like to spend more time with her father. Walter’s current wife, Buddy’s stepmother, and Michelle’s mother Emily (a steady performance by Ma-Anne Dionisio) referees so much in her relationship with her husband and her daughter’s relationship with her father that it takes its toll on her as well. Emily does not celebrate the Christmas holiday in the way she knows she should.
When Buddy arrives in New York City he is determined to make sure the meaning of kindness, peace, joy, and love of Christmas rings true in the residents’ hearts. He begins his task at the office where we meet Deb (Charlotte Moore, in excellent voice and comical gestures), Walter’s secretary/assistant who takes an instant liking to Buddy. Aadin Church also plays Walter’s tyrant boss, Mr. Greenway, a similar workaholic who wants things done his way or there are immediate firings. Soon, Buddy develops a burgeoning interest in Jovie (stirring vocal work by Michelle Bardach), who works at Macey’s Department Store. Jovie has had a string of unsuccessful relationships with men whom she has dated. She finds Buddy both odd and yet fascinating and her clever musical number ‘Never Fall in Love (With An Elf)’ sets the right tone for how she feels at that particular moment about him.
Another reason why the Grand’s ‘Elf’ put a smile on my face? A local, energetic, and lively children’s chorus from the London area fill out the youth of New York City.
Director Dennis Garnhum and Music Director Alexandra Kane smartly envision this ‘Elf’ as a children’s storybook. Everything is large and colourfully bright. The story clips along at a solid pace which never feels rushed. Lisa Stevens’ robust choreography stylishly reflects the intentions and actions of the musical score. Scott Penner and Dana Osborne’s Set and Costume designs become veritable eye candy creations. Santa’s workshop at the top of the show is snow white clean with a tastefully and ornately decorated tree upstage centre. Osborne’s costumes capture the essence of the modern time while evoking the colours of the holiday season. The lushness of Buddy’s green vest and Santa’s red coat and pants brought back many wonderful memories I had from years ago as a child.
Kimberly Purtell’s lighting design gorgeously captures the emotional impact of the scene. Thank you, Brian Kenny, for ensuring there is an appropriate sound balance between the orchestra and singers. From my audience’s vantage point, I could clearly hear the song lyrics which is a bonus because so much of the comic laughter stems from the words.
Performances are satisfying and pleasing while never bordering on the campy. Izad Etemadi’s adorable Buddy remains one big cuddly hugger throughout. Who wouldn’t welcome a warm embrace from someone who only wants to see the best in everyone? Yes, Etemadi’s and Bardach’s ‘A Christmas Song’ may look and sound a tad schmaltzy but hold on – let’s not forget again that it’s Christmas. It’s the time of year when we hope we can be a tad sentimental since the last two years of Covid have knocked that out of all of us. We expect to see smiles, tears of happiness and bursts of pride and joy. It’s expected – it wouldn’t be the holiday season without it.
As Santa, Aadin Church emphasizes how he is not the traditional white figure audiences have seen over the year when he wittily states: “We’re going with a different complexion” with loud approving laughter from the audience. His sense of comic timing in pausing and looking is perfect. His eleven o’clock reprise of ‘Nobody Cares’ is a ballpark homerun. I also enjoyed watching Church’s performance in delineating two opposing characterizations of the boss Greenway and Santa.
There are several company numbers that are knock-out ballpark runs. The opening number ‘Happy All the Time’ aptly sets the festive mood of the season where we catch a first glimpse of the children’s chorus. I also liked the ice skating at Rockefeller Centre. Actually, the actors are on rollerblades but the majestic magic of skating at this iconic building are Christmas dreams. ‘Nobody Cares About Santa’ where the street corner Santas suffer from aching and tired feet at the local Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve is glitzy for its dynamic choreography. ‘The Story of Buddy’ where everyone tries to pitch the idea of the children’s storybook to Greenway becomes the classic epitome of musical theatre as we know it today. Again, great fun to watch.
Final Comments: Tunefully delightful with clever and witty lyrics and robust choreography, this ‘Elf, the Musical’ put a smile on my face as I left the Grand Theatre opening night. The audience around me was eating up the joy created on that stage like we devour Terry’s Orange chocolate balls found in our stockings.
This ‘Elf’ put me in the Christmas spirit. The run has been extended to December 31 – five extra performances as audiences have been wishing for it.
Santa gave them their wish.
Go and see it.
Running Time: approximately two hours with one intermission.
‘Elf, the Musical’ runs to December 31 on the Spriet Stage at London, Ontario’s Grand Theatre. For tickets, visit grandtheatre.com or call the Box Office (519) 672-8800.
ELF, THE MUSICAL
Book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin. Music by Matthew Sklar and Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Based upon the New Line Cinema film written by David Berenbaum
Originally produced by Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures In association with Unique Features
Directed by Dennis Garnhum
Alexandra Kane - Musical Director
Lisa Stevens - Choreographer
Dana Osborne - Costume Designer
Scott Penner - Set Designer
Kimberly Purtell - Lighting Designer
Brian Kenny - Sound Designer
Kelly Luft - Stage Manager
The Cast: Michelle Bardach, Kih Becke, Meg Buchanan-Lunn, Shane Carty, Aadin Church, Alicia D'Ariano, Riley DeLuca, Marco DeLuca, Ma-Anne Dionisio, Izad Etemadi, Sweeney MacArthur, Charlotte Moore, Jamie Murray, Shakeil Rollock, Taurian Teelucksingh, Margaret Thompson.
The Children: Jiya Agrawal, Miraya Agrawal, Raya Campbell, Marina Daminelli Krieck, Anthony Frescura-Denomme, Nicolas Hiltz, Isabelle Hiltz, Leah Gliddon, Lachlan MacLean, Paxton Nair.