MusicalReviewSouth West

Elf – The Musical – Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Book: Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin

Music / Lyrics: Matthew Sklar / Chad Beguelin

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Elf – The Musical tells the story of Buddy, a larger-than-life elf working in Santa’s workshop in the North Pole. When Buddy accidentally learns of his true identity, he goes to New York to find his biological father. Not even bothering to change into civvies, Buddy the Elf encounters a city jaded, cynical and lacking in Christmas spirit. Buddy takes it upon himself to persuade New York to believe.

Already a hit in the West End, Elf’s success is pinned on the 2003 hit film, starring Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel. Ferrell’s performance; a balance of chaos and containment, is a performance so closely identified with its performer, that trying to replicate it on stage becomes a tricky business. While Ben Forster gives us a Buddy brimming with charm and enthusiasm, you can’t help but wonder what would happen if Forster was allowed to step out from Ferrell’s shadow and create his own Elf. Why have a carbon copy when you can have something new?

Elf – The Musical tries hard, but never quite succeeds in creating a festive atmosphere. Instead of concentrating on why Christmas can leave us feeling so conflicted and pushing those buttons, everything is generalised down to the last candy cane. The musical applies a cookie-cutter approach where it needs to be handmade.

When it comes to Christmas, there is considerable competition out there, and the productions (stage and screen) that work, make themselves memorable by being different. Our heroes of Christmas are unlikely ones: Ebenezer Scrooge, Kevin McCallister, George Bailey. Buddy’s journey, if made more specific, more heartfelt, could elevate the entire musical to another level.

The production itself doesn’t want for talent, either. The cast is clearly up for the challenge; Joe McGann (Walter Hobbs), Liz McClarnon (Jovie) and Louis Emerick (Santa, Mr Greenway) aren’t normally known for appearing in musicals, but the fact they are out of their comfort zone gives their performances an extra edge. McClarnon is particularly good, her warm-toned voice blends well with Forster’s.

The musical doesn’t lack the necessary tools, it just needs to focus. The use of video on top of live action is cleverly done, but it is over-used and, again, risks comparisons with the film. While the special effects are impressive, they themselves become set pieces, distracting us from what a musical should hang on. Elf has a supporting cast eager to deliver, but they aren’t given enough to sink their teeth into. It leaves the performance feeling flat and one-dimensional.

Elf – The Musical is never quite sure what it wants to be: knock-about fun for the kids, or show-tunes with a knowing wink for the adults. In trying to cater to both, this production doesn’t quite live up to expectations. It has all the potential to be a great musical, but it trades on nostalgia at the expense of emotional impact. It’s a shame because it could be so much more.

Runs until Saturday 18 November | Image: Contributed

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A musical with potential

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The Southwest team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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One Comment

  1. Have to disagree wholeheartedly with the reviewer. I was completely blown away by this most magical of productions that couldn’t personify Christmas more if it tried. Comparisons with the film are unwarranted – it is a different entity, in which a superb cast and production team give their all, and fully succeed, in carrying the audience with them to a joyful land where all cynicism is left behind and everyone was cheering, laughing and wishing for more.

    It’s almost invidious to single anyone out, as the entire cast were brilliant. But Ben Forster sets a new gold standard for Buddy (a sparklejollytwinklejingly standard!); Liz McClarnon’s Jovie captured your heart – and what a voice; and Louis Emerick’s Santa not only had fantastic rapport with the audience but breathed new life and warmth into the most familiar of characters without ever resorting to a “knowing wink.”

    So I urge you if you can to see this enchanting dream of a show. There’s so much misery in the world. For just a few hours, “Think of the joy you’ll bring, if you just close your eyes – and sing!”

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