I didn't love it, but at least Elf: The Musical was considerate enough to write its own review: "Lower your expectations so you don't get disappointed," laments Jovie, Buddy the Elf's love interest. Follow that sage advice and you might actually enjoy the 5th Avenue Theater's latest Christmas musical extravaganza.
Like the Will Ferrell vehicle on which it is based, Elf is a stupid show built on a stupid premise: A North Pole misfit, the tall and gangly Buddy discovers he's not really an elf, so he heads to New York City to find his human father, whereupon he saves Christmas by restoring the cynical city folks' faith in Santa.
Whatever. In Ferrell's comically deft man-child hands, the 2003 film managed to rise above its one-joke material. Without Ferrell, not so much.
Matt Owen gamely imbues the title role with plenty of frenetic energy, but in his clumsier hands, Buddy's relentless innocence too often comes off as just plain irritating, while his singing voice falls short of what you'd expect from a Broadway lead. Owen's voice is loud enough and mostly on key, but lacks the resonance necessary to hit an emotional chord. Nor does the material make up for the lack of star power: The book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin is sentimental and predictable, filled with sitcom quality dialogue and only a smattering of the film's best jokes, while the songs by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin are mostly forgettable. The bluesy "Nobody Cares About Santa"—in which Buddy and an ensemble of disgruntled department-store Santas commiserate about the lack of Christmas spirit—is about as close as Elf comes to a showstopper. Unfortunately, it comes at the opening of act two; the show didn't actually stop for another 40 minutes or so.
Okay, maybe that's too mean. It's not a bad show. The supporting cast is more than competent, and both the direction and design live up to the 5th Avenue's usual professional standards. In fact, the rest of the opening-night audience seemed to genuinely enjoy itself—even the prerequisite standing ovation appeared more enthusiastic than usual. So perhaps a cynical Sondheim-fanboy Jew like me is the wrong person to fairly review such a family-friendly "sparklejollytwinklejingley" Christmas special.
But that's all Elf really is.