By Wendy Rosenfield
for the Inquirer
My family doesn't celebrate Christmas. We don't even have a Chanukah bush, that multiculti concession to the holiday's ubiquity and allure. However, every year we watch Elf, and sometimes, even in the summer. Elf, the musical, warming up the Walnut Street Theatre's mainstage, attempts to capture the film's oddball appeal and repackage it with an even wider-eyed, toe-tapping, more universal appeal.
With a book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Chad Beguelin, the story remains mostly the same. Buddy, living at the North Pole with Santa (under the mistaken impression he's an elf), discovers he's human, and sets out to find his father, a children's book editor, who works, of course, in the Empire State Building. Along the way, he meets a girl, gains a family, and saves both Christmas and his workaholic father's job. Sort of. The denouement turns out to be a bit sweeter and as unrealistic as an elf's four main food groups. ("Candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup.")
Robert Andrew Kovach's wildly patterned, sleigh and snowflake festooned sets (one scene even adds a miniature--and skateable--version of Rockefeller Center's iconic rink) add manic energy to a show that already exudes plenty. Marc Robin's direction and choreography make the most of a tap-dancing, cheerful cast packed with children and adults. Of those notoriously show-stealing children, Malvern Prep student J.D. Triolo, as Buddy's half-brother Michael, brings professional-level charm and a gorgeously clear voice to songs such as "There Is a Santa Claus."
Kate Fahrner and Charles Pistone also shine as Buddy's grinchier counterparts, his girlfriend Jovie and father Walter, and a Chinese restaurant Santa singalong, "Nobody Cares About Santa," a sort of Damn Yankees number--albeit with very different uniforms--captures some of the old Broadway spirit.
But what of Buddy? Christopher Sutton has all the innocence and none of the weirdness Ferrell brought to the role. He's a kinder, gentler version, resting at a solid six, while everything around him gets turned up to 11. This choice is certainly Robin's prerogative, but it takes a while to warm up to Sutton, whose low-key style tends to swallow some lyrics and results in an inconsistent, if ultimately agreeable performance.
The Walnut's production, too, is ultimately agreeable. While some, like me, might miss the original's sharper edges, sentimental Christmas-loving families not ready to call it a day after Wanamaker's (now Macy's) light show-viewing and Dickens Village-touring, will no doubt enjoy ending their day with Elf's sugar rush.
Playing at: Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., Philadelphia. Through Sunday, Jan. 5. Tickets: $10-$95. Information: 800-982-2787 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.