When it comes to the holidays, my outlook has long been more Charles Addams than Charles Dickens, and I generally greet the announcement of a new “holiday entertainment” with an acerbic, “God save us, everyone.”
Dickens dealt with darker subjects and imperfect characters in Christmas books, but contemporary holiday tales are too often bland, overly cheerful affairs leaving me feeling as if someone had spiked the eggnog with ipecac — the one exception being the fine Broadway production of “White Christmas,” an adult story I had hoped would return this year.
Instead, we got “Elf,” and I’m happy to say it’s a delight. I never had seen the 2003 movie on which it’s based, and I only marginally knew the story, but it’s a classic “fish out of water plot.” In this case, the fish is Buddy, an orphaned human who’s been raised as an elf in Santaland and finds himself at a loss when he returns to New York to find his curmudgeonly real father, who happens to be a children’s book editor in desperate need of a holiday blockbuster and a way to reconnect with his family.
“Elf” is a delightful old-fashioned musical, while “Personal Enemy” feels its age
Christmas is threatened. Crises are averted. And everything ends happily as romantic snow falls.
The reason “Elf” works is that it has attempted to do one thing — entertain. Playwrights Tomas Meehan and Bob Martin, who temper the jokes and the silliness with some real heart, demonstrate that even working with a formula, they can find fresh and funny things that appeal to both kids and adults — though kids under 8 probably won’t be ready for the two-and-a-half hours.
Matthew Sklar’s music is bright, bubbly, and very “tuneful.” Chad Beguelin’s lyrics are more contemporary; one rhyme with “Beth Israel” made me laugh out loud.
The show has been given a top-notch production. Casey Nicholaw’s direction keeps everything moving and the humor and energy high, and his choreography is fun and witty. David Rockwell’s set is a children’s book come to life, particularly the scenes in Rockefeller Center and Macy’s. Gregg Barnes’ contemporary costumes are terrific, and his elf costumes are an explosion of color and whimsy.
The cast is wonderful. Sebastian Arcelus as Buddy manages the nearly impossible feat of being innocent without being cloying. On stage nearly the entire time, Arcelus holds the show together very well. Amy Spanger plays Jovie, the girl Buddy falls in love with. Initially, she is creeped out by Buddy, but ultimately this hard-bitten New Yorker falls hard for the new guy in town — and Spanger does it very well. Her great comic number in the second act, “Never Fall in Love,” shows off her amazing voice.
Other cast standouts are Beth Leavel, as the editor’s wife and Buddy’s stepmother, and George Wendt, who does a turn as Santa, bookending the show. The tireless ensemble is terrific, playing everything from midget elves to harried office workers — and dancing up a storm all the time.
The show is unapologetically a throwback, but the sort that works at the holidays. “Elf” throws in all the seasonal tropes — ice-skating, the Herald Square Macy’s, and a miraculous denouement. There are also priceless moments, like a chorus of Santas in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve complaining “Nobody Cares About Santa,” or the happy ending, which is completely over the top and hilarious.
Sometimes delightful entertainment is its own reason and its own reward. “Elf” only plays through January 2, so if you miss it, hope there’s a return next year.
Obscurity often has its reasons as well. “Personal Enemy,” written by John Osborne and Anthony Creighton in 1953, deals with McCarthyism and the fear and loathing it directed toward political outcasts including homosexuals. Osborne, primarily known for his searing play “Look Back in Anger,” exploring the disaffected and unhappy after World War II, attempted to bring some of that rage into this play, but it falls flat.
To contemporary audiences, the subject is well-worn, and the story of a family torn apart by a gay son and the McCarthy dragnet has been told much better. The overly talky script cries out for cutting and focus, and it pales against contemporary political drama, notably the current revival of “Angels in America.” The Fallout Theatre from London, though, is making a point of presenting “Personal Enemy” for the first time uncut and as written as part of the Brits Off Broadway Series at 59E59. They might better have saved their energies.
David Aula’s direction does absolutely nothing with the play, and the cast, though earnest, is not really up to the challenge. They can’t really be blamed. This is an immature work whose power comes nowhere close to that of the politics that inspired it. Its obscurity is well-deserved.
Al Hirschfeld Theatre
302 W. 45th St.
Through Jan. 2
Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.;
Fri.-Sun. at 8 p.m.
Wed. at 2 p.m.; Sat., Sun. at 3 p.m.
59 E. 59th St.
Through Nov. 28
Tue. Wed., Sun. at 7:15 p.m.
Fri.-Sat. at 8:15 p.m.
Sat., Sun. at 2:15 pm