It’s already the hottest ticket in town. The buzz on the streets started almost a year ago when The Lowry announced that it was bringing Elf the Musical to Salford as part of their Christmas program for 2018. The Broadway show debuted in the West End in 2015 and became the fastest selling show at the Dominion Theatre in its history. That fever, it would seem, has been caught by the folks up north making Elf the Musical this season’s must watch production.
I’ve got a real fondness for ‘Elf the Film’. A sleeper hit that over the years has gained in its reputation and is often ranked quite highly among the greatest Christmas films of all time. Even the cantankerous hard to please Roger Ebert gave it a glowing review calling it “one of those rare Christmas comedies that has a heart, a brain and a wicked sense of humor, and it charms the socks right off the mantelpiece.”
So it is no surprise that the Musical should generate so much interest, even more so given the sell out record breaking run in the West End, which starred Ben Forster, Kimberley Walsh of Girls Aloud fame and Joe McGann. Forster and McGann have reprised their original West End roles as Buddy and Buddy’s biological father, along with new additions in Atomic Kitten’s Liz McClarnon as Jovie and Louis Emerick as good ol’ Santa.
The Musical pretty much keeps to the same script as the film. One of Santa’s elves learns that he’s a human, goes to New York City to meet his biological father, falls in love and is pretty much obsessed with anything and everything to do with Christmas. The team behind the original Broadway hit is blooming impressive. Written by Bob Martin and multi Tony Award winner Thomas Meehan, with music provided by Matthew Sklar, who has worked his magic on other notable productions such as the Wedding Singer.
All these ingredients add up to a stellar hit in the making. And it is stellar in every sense of the word. The set design is perhaps some of the most impressive set designs I’ve seen in all my years of watching theatre. The digital backdrop is equally impressive. That Broadway influence is there for all to see, especially in most of the song numbers where the cast are used in stunning equilibrium. At times I could just slink in my chair and almost wallow in the Broadway values this show espouses, often using the ensemble to show off its credentials. Musical numbers such as ‘Sparklejollytwinklejingley’ and the pièce de résistance ‘Nobody Cares about Santa’, which has a chorus line of clinically depressed, all singing and all dancing Santas.
Like the show’s hero and it’s obsession with all things sweet, this production’s sugary sweetness begins to tail off once the sugar rush has passed. Without my over enthusiastic Buddy goggles on, there are times when it all got a bit too one dimensional. Playing the lead role is Ben Forster and he plays Buddy to the hilt. His take on Will Ferrell’s great comedic character is pretty much on the nose most of the time. Yet, I can’t help wondering if Forster is so comfortable in this role that he switches to autopilot. The script does him no favours either as the show has sacrificed the more nuanced moments of the film in order to cram in a multitude of musical numbers. So for Forster, there is few moments to be anything less than the zany version of Buddy we all know and love and when there is, you wonder how much better his performance may have been if we could see a more layered interpretation of Buddy the character.
As for the other notable cast members, Liz McClarnon is adept as Jovie – although surprisingly sparingly under used – and Louis Emerick as Santa Claus and Lori Haley Fox as Deb quickly become crowd favourites with their comedic turns.
Whilst I yearned for a more grown up version of Elf, it’s unseasonal of me to end with the focus on how this production could have been so much better. As an alternative to the more traditional panto, this has got everything going for it, a hero who children and grown ups alike can really get behind, a pantomime villain, lots of singalong numbers, add a bit a theatrical razzmatazz and you had an auditorium that was on its feet in unison giving it a standing ovation. And you cannot get more of a ringing endorsement than that.
Verdict: Fun, zany, singalong, foot tapping and visually impressive musical version of that Christmas classic, Elf. It’s the hottest ticket in town and is sure not to leave audiences disappointed. If only it could be more than the sum of its parts!