San Francisco Theater Review: ELF THE MUSICAL (Curran Theatre)

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by Jim Allen on December 18, 2014

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Known by many as “the most wonderful time of the year,” Christmas has richly earned its reputation for gooey sentimentality, decking the halls with mucho kitsch, and spreading good cheer to all of those people you’ve managed to ignore all year. Despite its questionable source material, Elf, Will Ferrell’s hit 2003 Christmas movie, managed to dodge those bullets, thanks to a clever script, excellent casting and solid direction. Elf the Musical does not.

Santa (Ken Clement) and the Company of ELF THE MUSICAL. Photo by Amy Boyle.

For those three people who somehow missed the classic film, Elf (the musical and the movie) is the tale of Buddy, a very tall 30-year-old man employed as a toymaker at Santa’s North Pole workshop, having been raised as an elf by Santa himself. Upon learning of his true lineage, Buddy immediately heads to Manhattan to track down his father and find out what happened and why. Faster than you can say “sugar plum fairy” he finds his father, his stepmother, his half-brother, a job at Macy’s, and then develops a crush on his pretty but jaded co-worker, Jovie.

Santa (Ken Clement) and the Company in ELF THE MUSICAL. Photo by Amy Boyle.

In this rather clunky and problematic stage adaptation, authors Thomas Meehan (Annie, HairsprayThe Producers) and Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) blithely jettison much of the story and character development to make room for a pleasant but undistinguished score (Matthew Sklar, music; Chad Beguelin, lyrics), one chock-a-block with innumerable peppy, perky, feel-good numbers, all of which have been choreographed to within an inch of their upbeat, cheery lives by Connor Gallagher. By the end of the first act, I felt as if I’d been beaten with a rubber candy cane.

Santa (Ken Clement), Buddy (Eric Williams) and the Company of ELF THE MUSICAL. Photo by Amy Boyle.

Eric Williams, as Buddy, has boundless energy, and a unique goofy charm, qualities which keep his performance afloat in this sea of relentless overkill. Conversely, Jesse Sharp, playing his long-lost father Walter Hobbs, is basically a place holder, the actor exhibiting none of the toughness, hard edge, or cynicism vital to making his about-face resonate in Act II.

Buddy (Eric Williams), Store Manager (Jerrial T. Young) and the Company of ELF THE MUSICAL. Photo by Amy Boyle.

Director Sam Scalamoni seems to have custom-tailored this show for an audience of very small children with even smaller attention spans, as he keeps everything moving at break-neck speed. At an important transitional moment in the story (spoiler alert), Buddy thoughtlessly shoves a highly valuable manuscript, one which might very well save his father’s job, through a shredder to create paper “snow.” The moment isn’t given so much as a nanosecond to land, denying Walter an opportunity for any sort of truthful reaction, before we’re whisked-off to the next set-change and rousing production number.

Deb (Whitney Hayes) and Buddy (Eric Williams) in ELF THE MUSICAL. Photo by Amy Boyle.

Many other moments are similarly given short shrift. When the cast members aren’t dancing they’re little tushies off, they bravely face front and “deliver” the songs and dialogue. Any hope of the show making an emotional connection with its audience has been overruled in favor of Performing with a capital “P” and jazz hands all around.

Michael (Tyler Altomari) and Buddy (Eric Williams) in ELF THE MUSICAL. Photo by Amy Boyle.

Maggie Anderson’s performance as Buddy’s plucky, strong-willed love interest, Jovie, is quite good, despite the fact that her role has been reduced to a walk-on. Also notable was Whitney Hayes, as Deb, Walter’s tuneful, high-kicking office manager.

Buddy (Eric Williams) and the company of ELF THE MUSICAL. Photo by Amy Boyle.

Gregg Barnes’ bright, candy-colored costumes hit the right notes, as do Christine Peter’s sparkly scenic design and Paul Miller’s fanciful lighting. Shannon Slaton’s sound design, on the other hand, could use improvement. From the tenth row of the Curran Theatre’s orchestra section, I missed a fair amount of dialogue and quite a few lyrics.

Buddy (Eric Williams) and the Fake Santas in ELF THE MUSICAL. Photo by Amy Boyle.

In the end, what we have here is yet another example of something Stephen Sondheim refers to as a “why” show, as in “why” was it done?  Elf was just fine as the still popular, now-classic holiday film. I suspect the answer has a great deal more to do with commerce than art.

Jovie (Maggie Anderson) and Buddy (Eric Williams) in ELF THE MUSICAL. Photo by Amy Boyle.

photos by Amy Boyle Photography

Elf the Musical
NETworks Presentations, Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures & Unique Features
SHN Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St.
scheduled to end on December 28, 2014
for tickets, call 888-746-1799 or visit
for more info, visit

{ 1 comment }

George McRae December 20, 2014 at 11:29 am

Agreed! However, regarding the sets–all being in much part painted canvas scrims–sway and move in the slightest breeze, thus lending the entire production an advanced community-theater feel. Notice also that this was not an Actors Equity signatory production. One actor professes in his bio his coming eligibility, but none of the other actors are union. Troubling. Some have TV credits, and I am surprised that none have SAG/AFTRA to AEA crossover contracts. It’s a Union theater town, so where is the outcry? If it isn’t Equity, it just might be crap. Anyhow the whole show has a “here today-gone tomorrow” quality.

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