REVIEW: Elf: The Musical at the Grand Theatre

Since the release of the original 2003 movie starring Will Ferrell, Elf has become a modern holiday classic. At its core, it’s a funny, slightly silly tale with a lot of heart, and in adapting the story for the stage, Elf: The Musical takes the movie’s catchphrase – that “the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear” – literally.

For those unfamiliar with the original, Elf (both movie and musical) tells the story of Buddy, a human raised by elves after crawling into Santa’s bag of toys one fateful Christmas Eve. Driven by the desire to find his father, Walter Hobbs (who, horrifyingly, has landed himself on Santa’s naughty list), Buddy leaves the vibrant North Pole for a bustling New York, bringing the audience along with him as he reunites with his family, falls in love, and tries to bring some of the aforementioned Christmas cheer to a city full of disillusioned urbanites.

The Grand’s production (directed by Dennis Garnhum) goes to show that among the plethora of film-to-musical adaptations out there nowadays, Elf is one that really works. Composer Matthew Sklar’s music is catchy (which makes the frequent use of reprises welcome rather than monotonous), and festive without being cheesy. Drawing on a variety of styles, from the ballad-like “I’ll Believe in You,” to the jazzy “Nobody Cares About Santa” (which in this production features some fantastic musical moments not only from the actors, but also from the orchestra’s brass section under the direction of Alexandra Kane), the score is a perfect accompaniment to the story’s innate comedy and theatrics.

This comedy is exemplified by Izad Etemadi’s energetic take on Buddy the Elf, who steals the show from his first moments on stage. Impressively, Etemadi’s Buddy can stand fully apart from Will Ferrell’s, providing enough of the familiar to please movie fans while also turning the character into something completely his own. While Buddy seems to be written intentionally to teeter between charming and annoying, Etemadi’s earnestness and constant high energy ensure that he stays closer to the former than the latter.

The supporting cast are just as good: Aadin Church, in his dual roles as Santa and publishing mogul Mr. Greenway, ensures Santa is someone we love and Greenway someone we love to hate. Riley DeLuca as the Hobbs’ daughter Michelle brings fantastic vocals, and plays the role with an innocence and tenacity which makes her wonderfully believable as Buddy’s younger sister. And Taurian Teelucksingh’s Macy’s Manager is overworked but surprisingly sympathetic.

The ensemble as a whole successfully takes on an array of roles throughout the show, including the North Pole’s bearded elves, harried New York residents, and a bevy of out-of-work mall Santas. The cast’s impressive ability to slip between these characters is supported by Dana Osbourne’s costume design, where subtle details remind us exactly who we’re looking at and where we are within the world of the story.

Lisa Stevens’ choreography also helps to characterize each of the show’s distinctive settings, from the childlike exuberance of the North Pole’s elves during the opening number, to the particularly effective frenetic isolation of the New Yorkers (whose frenzied movement neatly places the audience into Buddy’s bewildered shoes), to the whimsy of a roller-skating number held around a miniature Rockefeller Center. Although the cast itself is fairly large, I was often surprised by how few people were actually on stage at any given moment – Stevens’ choreography is particularly good at evoking crowds.

All of this action happens within the winter wonderland of Scott Penner’s sets, which bring plenty of theatre magic of their own. Watching Walter Hobbs’ office emerge from cubbies in the glittering white cityscape which surrounds the stage was a delightful surprise, and wondering where props or set pieces might come from next, or which other parts of the set might conceal secret doors kept me on my toes. The level of detail in sets like the office or the North Pole did make me want just a bit more out of those which take a more minimalistic approach – the bare stage during the Hobbs’ meeting with Santa in Central Park in particular feels a bit sparse, especially given the tantalizing glimpse we get of Santa’s sleigh sitting just offstage – that said though, the overall design is surprising, fun, and often beautiful to look at.

Overall, Elf: The Musical at the Grand is lighthearted, warm, and an effervescent antidote to the chaos of the holiday season. Due to popular demand, it’s already been extended past its original Christmas Eve closing to run until December 31, and it’s easy to see why. Movie fans will be delighted by familiar lines and characters, and the outstanding performances and visual spectacle will appeal to anyone, regardless of whether or not they already know the story of Buddy the Elf. It’s just plain Christmas fun.

Elf: The Musical runs at the Grand Theatre through December 31. Tickets are available here.

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Written By

Charlotte Lilley (she/her) is based in London, Ontario where she is finishing her undergraduate degree at Western University in theatre, music, and writing. Outside of her studies, she works as Co-Editor of Nota Bene: Canadian Undergraduate Journal of Musicology, published annually through the Don Wright Faculty of Music. In her free time, Charlotte can often be found searching for new secondhand bookstores to explore or playing tabletop games.