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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.