REVIEW: Elf The Musical, York Stage, at Grand Opera House, York, until December 3

Sophie Hammond’s Jovie and Damien Poole’s Buddy leading a dance routine in York Stage’s Elf The Musical. All pictures: Charlie Kirkpatrick, Kirkpatrick Photography

YOU will be lucky if any tickets are still left for York Stage’s Christmas show, and luckier still if you do see Elf The Musical.

The Christmas spirit is alive in more than those irritatingly premature TV adverts; a neighbour has put up the Christmas tree already; pantomimes are underway; the weather has turned all Jack Frost on us, and Elf The Musical is packing out the Grand Opera House, with all manner of accompanying merchandise to tempt, and Christmas jumpers on their first outing of the new season.

On first thoughts, a run nearer Christmas might have been more ideal, but judging by Saturday’s matinee, full of excited young families, a festive trip to the theatre cannot come soon enough after the misery of multiple lockdowns.

Martin Rowley’s storytelling Santa

Under the limitations of social bubbles, York Stage went ahead with their debut musical pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, last Christmas, but Elf The Musical marks the return to shows on the scale of Shrek The Musical, a huge hit for Nik Briggs’s company at the Grand Opera House. The orchestra alone numbers 16 under musical director Stephen Hackshaw’s zestful charge, to complement the cast of 20-plus.                     

Artistic director Briggs, who played the title role in that show, swaps places with Shrek’s director (and choreographer to boot), Damien Poole. Somehow, despite running Damien Poole Theatre Arts in Harrogate and teaching musical theatre at Leeds Conservatoire, he has found time to rehearse and play Buddy – and make him his own one-man national elf service. Did anyone mention Will Ferrell? No! “Damien is Buddy,” said Briggs beforehand, and now you can see why.

Elf The Musical retains the jokes and the naïve charm of the 2003 film, with a witty, playful book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, then leaves out the impractical high-speed snowball fight, and adds all the song-and-dance razzmatazz of a Broadway musical, with music by Matthew Sklar big on winter brass and lyrics by Chad Beguelin full of humour, bold statements and big sentiments.

Get your skates on…but not even that may guarantee you a ticket for York Stage’s hot-selling winter warmer Elf The Musical

Emily Taylor, long associated with Grand Opera House pantomimes, brings her choreographic brio to York Stage’s Elf, excelling in the ensemble numbers, never more so than when a multitude of Santas are letting off their after-hours steam.

Should anyone miraculously have escaped the film, Elf The Musical has Martin Rowley’s old-school Santa introducing the story of how orphan boy Buddy crawls into Santa’s sack and ends up being brought up among all the elf toy makers on a sugar-rich diet with two visits a day to the North Pole dentist. 

In the opening scenes, all except Santa and Buddy are whizzing around on their knees playing elves, immediately establishing the magical yet daft fun of Briggs’s show.

Faateh Sohail as Michael and Jo Theaker as Emily Hobbs

Poole captures this tone perfectly, full of good cheer, love, innocence, cheekiness and a desire to please, like the silly billy/daft lad/Buttons roles we associate with pantomimes at this time of year. Then add boundless energy, delightful singing and nimble dance skills, plus natural stage “likeability” (to borrow a Berwick Kaler expression), and you have the ideal Buddy.

When Buddy learns that he is not an elf after all, despite being so elfish in his thinking, off to New York he must go to try to find his real father, children’s publishing-house manager Walter Hobbs (Stuart Piper), who never knew he had a son from a long-ago relationship. 

Perma-stressed Walter is now married to long-suffering Emily (Jo Theaker), with a son, Michael (Faateh Sohail at the matinee, sharing the role with Declan Childs and Ethan McDonald). 

Elf director Nik Briggs and choreographer Emily Taylor with lead actors Sophie Hammond and Damien Poole

Briggs has cast as well as ever, Piper’s Walter walking the tightrope of being unreasonable/reasonable in his behaviour, Theaker being as lovable as always and Sohail showing bags of confidence and promise.

Like Poole, professional actor Sophie Hammond, first cast by Briggs 11 years ago as Ariel in Footloose, has moved into teaching drama skills but she has jumped at the chance to play Jovie, Buddy’s slow-burn love interest.

Initially, her Jovie is typical of the New York cynicism to be found among the Macy’s department store staff, where Buddy finds himself working as he constantly corrects everyone’s misconceptions over Santa, the North Pole and Christmas. Like the rest of us, she cannot but warm to Buddy’s innocent enthusiasm, even for going on a date. Hammond captures this transmission with more subtlety than would be first apparent in the script’s broad strokes.  

Katie Melia’s Babs and Damien Poole’s Buddy

Strong support comes from Katie Melia’s Deb, Jack Hooper’s Chadwick, and especially Craig Kirby’s grouchy publishing boss, Greenway.

Hackshaw’s band are on ace form, not only the brass section, but with Sam Johnson, Barbara Chan and violinist Claire Jowett among the ranks, the quality is high indeed for the fantastic score.

The snowy icing on the cake is Briggs’s set design, big snowflakes, open North Pole skyline, bustling Macy’s store, finale snow machine et al, as he draws inspiration from Radio City Music Hall. Will there be a magical sleigh ride? Wait and see – if you have one of those oh-so-in-demand tickets of course.

Box office on the off chance: atgickets.com/York.

York Stage Musicals’ Elf on course to sell out as Buddy brings joyful early Christmas present to Grand Opera House from tonight

Sophie Hammond’s Jovie and Damien Poole’s Buddy go green for York Stage Musicals’ Elf

AFTER The Flint Street Nativity and last winter’s debut pantomime Jack And The Beanstalk, York Stage Musicals are serving up Christmas cheer again with Elf The Musical.

Such is the anticipation for this show that the Grand Opera House run from today until December 3 has all but sold out already. “Out of the 11 performances, we have around only ten tickets left for each show,” says delighted artistic director Nik Briggs.

York Stage Musicals are presenting the York premiere of Matthew Sklar, Chad Beguelin, Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin’s musical, based on the 2003 film, the one with a goofing Will Ferrell.

Should Elf somehow have eluded you, the story follows orphan child Buddy as he mistakenly crawls into Santa Claus’s bag and ends up being transported to his North Pole abode.

Once there, unaware he is human, and not an elf, his enormous size and poor toy-making abilities cause him to face the truth.

Given Santa’s permission, Buddy (played by Damien Poole) must head to New York City to find his birth father, discover his true identity and help the Big Apple to remember the true meaning of Christmas.

“We love bringing big Broadway and West End musicals to York: we’ve done Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert and Shrek The Musical, and I knew Elf would be perfect for the cast we have: high energy and full of fun,” says Nik.

Elf The Musical director Nik Briggs, left, choreographer Emily Taylor and lead actors Sophie Hammond and Damien Poole at York Stage Musicals’ press launch at Sotano, Little Stonegate, York

“With The Flint Street Nativity and our musical panto, Jack And The Beanstalk, we’ve started bringing alternative Christmas shows to York and Elf perfectly fits that bill.”

How does the musical differ from the film? “The songs, obviously! It’s got a stellar songbook to go will all the comedy that people love from the movie,” says Nik. “The beautiful score is accompanied by a big, brassy band: a 16-piece orchestra directed by the wonderful Stephen Hackshaw. It sounds amazing.”

As affirmed by the ticket sales, Elf has winter winner written all over it. “People love the film; it’s a title they know, and after the past 18 months we’ve all had, it’s the perfect show too see. Pure joy!” says Nik.

“Just as Buddy helps New York to find its Christmas spirit, so Damien and the cast will be helping York to do the same.”

Enthusing over his two leads, Damien Poole, as Buddy and Sophie Hammond, as Buddy’s love interest, Jovie, Nik says: “Damien IS Buddy! He loves Christmas, he’s so full of joy, so energetic, and with his ten years of West End credentials in such shows as Grease and Groundhog Day, he can sustain that throughout the run.

“Sophie is just the most beautiful performer. I remember when she first walked in to audition for Footloose, more than ten years ago, I was just blown away, casting her as Ariel, the preacher’s daughter with the looks and rebellious attitude of a bad girl. She really takes the audience on a journey when she performs.”

After mounting Jack And The Beanstalk at Theatre@41, Monkgate, last Christmas with the requirement for social bubbles, a compact cast and the constant uncertainty over whether the show would have to be called off (only the finale was lost in the end), Nik is once more producing a show under the Covid cloud.

“After the past 18 months we’ve all had, Elf is the perfect show too see. Pure joy!” says director Nik Briggs

“We’ve kept our numbers to what would be the cast size for a tour – around 20 – and we’ve never stopped learning from the shows we’ve done since the pandemic forced changes, starting with the outdoor concerts at Rowntree Park in late-summer 2020 and the panto,” he says, as he attends to the Elf and safety requirements.

“That’s put us in a really good position to run a show like this, with all the requirements for Lateral Flow Tests and wearing masks when necessary.”

After the hit run of Shrek The Musical, directed and choreographed by Damien Poole after his return to Boston Spa from his West End work, York Stage Musicals are thrilled to be back at the Grand Opera House for Elf. “We love working with the team here, and we love the technical possibilities the stage affords us,” says Nik, who has done the set design on top of his directing duties.

“We’ve had the set built by companies and builders around the country for a brand new set design that works perfectly with the space, inspired by New York and Radio City Music Hall, in Midtown Manhattan, which I visited in 2019, shortly before Covid arrived.”

Looking ahead, York Stage Musicals will be returning to the Grand Opera House from April 22 to 30 next year for the York premiere of Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls: The Musical. Write that one down on your 2022 calendar and be sure to book early.

York Stage Musicals in Elf The Musical, Grand Opera House, York, tonight (25/11/2021) until December 3. Box office: hurry, hurry to atgtickets.com/York or ring 0844 871 7615.

Copyright of The Press, York

Damien Poole and Sophie Hammond: Actors, teachers and stars of York Stage Musicals’ Elf The Musical

SOPHIE Hammond is completing a full circle as she returns to the Grand Opera House stage in York tonight in York Stage Musicals’ Elf The Musical.

“This is my first time back in a York Stage show since playing Ariel in 2010 in Footloose. I was blonde at the time,” recalls Sophie, her hair now darker, as she takes the role of Buddy’s love interest, Jovie, in Elf.

“That was my first show with York Stage Musicals, as after Footloose I went off to London to train in musical theatre at the American Musical Theatre Academy, where I managed to get myself an agent and went into performing jobs.”

Four years into the profession, Sophie made a career change. “I decided I wanted to teach performing arts at secondary school, and I’ve been teaching at Beckfoot School, in Bradford, for three years, which have whizzed by,” she says.

Sophie performed in the second of York Stage Musicals’ outdoor concerts in Rowntree Park in Summer 2020 and now she is treading the boards once more at the Grand Opera House. “It feels like it’s a nice circle being completed, being back there after 11 years,” she says.

LIKE Sophie Hammond, Damien Poole has left London behind to make a new start.

“I’d lived there for 15 years, working in the West End, but four years ago I decided to set up my theatre school, Damien Poole Theatre Arts, which I run in Harrogate, and I also work at the Leeds Conservatoire music school, working with musical theatre degree students,” he says.

After directing and choreographing York Stage Musicals’ September 2019 production of Shrek The Musical – “an amazing experience,” he says – Damien now faces the challenge of balancing his teaching duties with playing the lead character of Buddy in YSM’s Elf.

“I try to make time by changing my times at the theatre school and Leeds, so I can rehearse on Wednesdays and Sundays and have Thursdays off,” he says.

He is relishing taking on the role synonymous with Will Farrell. “Obviously I’m not going to be able to create what Will Farrell did in creating Buddy’s character in the film, but I get to sing and dance, and you get to see more layers to Buddy in the musical,” says Damien.

York Stage take Songs From The Settee out of the home and into Theatre @41 UPDATE

TONIGHT’s opening performance of York Stage’s Songs From The Settee – Live On Stage has sold out.

Only a handful of tickets are still available across the next three nights at Theatre @41, Monkgate, York, where director/producer is staging the series in the wake of a hit series of online shows. Hurry, hurry to book at yorkstagemusicals.com.

Briggs and his York production company never let the first pandemic lockdown grind them down, instead bringing together their performers, musicians and technicians remotely for a streamed concert season that played out over ten weeks under the title of Songs From The Settee.

“The idea was to keep the city entertained with top-quality musical theatre while we were in uncharted territory,” says Nik. “We thought the weekly publications would last three to four weeks, but before we knew it, we were at ten!

“We were blown away and driven by our friends and followers, who were engaging with the series and sending us messages, saying how we were helping them get through the week.”

The first online recording, Heroes All Around, was released on April 9 2020. “So, it felt like the perfect date, one year later, to announce what we’d be bringing to our audiences as theatres reopen with social distancing from May 17: Songs From The Settee – Live On Stage,” says Nik.

“From May 20 to 23, we have two different concerts that will run back to back under the same title at 7.30pm each evening.

“Musical director Jess Douglas will start the ball rolling with her band and some of York Stage’s finest vocal talents on May 20 and 21, before passing the baton to Stephen Hackshaw, who will bring in a new band and showcase more of the York Stage talent pool on May 22 and 23.”

The event will be staged in the Covid-secure John Cooper Studio at Theatre@41 on Monkgate, where audiences will be seated at cabaret tables, socially distanced from other bubbles around the studio. Drinks and refreshments will be served throughout the show with a table-service offering.

“Having produced a socially distanced pantomime, Jack And The Beanstalk, at Theatre @41 over Christmas, we know we can bring a show with full Covid compliance to the venue successfully and very much look forward to doing so,” says Nik.

Nik Briggs: York Stage artistic director

Here CharlesHutchPress fires off a fusillade of questions for a round of quickfire responses from artistic director Nik Briggs:

What will be the format of each concert? Will each one have a separate theme?
“Songs From The Settee: Live On Stage will bring some of the our online performances to the stage for the first time, alongside lots of other musical theatre and pop songs.

“There will be some group numbers of course, but the main part of the evenings will be made up of a series of cabaret/live lounge-type sets that will see our performers take to the stage solo with a collection of songs that mean something to them! 

“Throughout lockdown, we saw a lot of people setting up their ring lights and creating mini- recording studios in their homes in order to continue to create and be creative and the evenings are set to celebrate the tenacity performers showed across the industry and the work they created in lockdown.

“I often say to younger performers who I work with, ‘Sing like you sing in your bedroom mirror and now it’s time to see what that mantra brings from our older performers!”

Will Jess and Stephen decide on each concert’s content or will you be involved too?

“These shows will be a real collaboration between the artists, musical directors and myself due to the nature of the evening.”  

Who will be the singers for Jess’s shows and Stephen’s shows?

“On May 20 and 21, Jess will be working alongside Sophie Hammond, Lauren Sheriston, Joanne Theaker and some recent graduates.

“On May 22 and 23, Stephen will be returning to the musical director’s chair after a year for his concerts and he’ll be working with Grace Lancaster, Conor Mellor, Damien Poole, Emily Ramsden and, again, recent grads.

“Taking part across the four nights will be graduates Stephanie Bolsher, Holly Smith and Talia Firth, who have all performed with us previously, and Elodie Lawry, who will be graduating from the University of York this year.”

How will the stage be dressed for each show?  What will be the dress code for the performers?
“Well, we’re indoors this time, so we’ll not need as many layers as when we had our sell-out shows in Rowntree Park last August and September. Umbrellas certainly not called for! “There’s is no real dress code for this one though; our performers will be dressed to make them feel suitably fabulous and ready to entertain.” 

Just wondering: will there be a settee (or ‘sofa’ as my mother has always insisted I should say) on stage?

“Of course! How could we have Songs From The Settee: Live On Stage without a settee? I joked that we should maybe have a sacrificial burning or destruction of the settee at the end of each show to symbolise Boris’s plans that these reopenings will be very much irreversible.

“The venue will be beautifully lit again by Adam Moore and his Tech 24:7 team.”

 
What did you learn from mounting the Songs From The Settee shows online series; will “streaming” continue to play a role in York Stage’s work?

“Who knows. What I think it showed was yet again York Stage are adaptable. We responded and worked hard to ensure we continued and provided top-notch entertainment for the city, even in the darkest, hardest times for theatre.

“As you yourself have often commented in reviews, we really aim to set the bar high with everything we do as a producer in York. We are unique in that we proudly sit between others in the city where we continually mix professional performers and production teams with only the best of York’s community actors.

“That is what makes us exciting and ensures we are are able to bring huge West End and Broadway titles to the city, alongside smaller concerts, plays and studio pieces, which all have high production values, the best performances and stories that are filled with spirit and heart.”