On Stage: Stellar production of ‘Elf — The Musical’ a joyous ride not to be missed
Now here’s a show that’ll knock the scrooge out of even the most cantankerous holiday humbug. The Arvada Center has put together the must-see holiday show of the season, and it’s a crowded field this year.
Forget what you know about the film this was based on. “Elf” was a 2003 Will Ferrell vehicle too Will Ferrell-y even for many Will Ferrell fans. His enormous and annoying thumbprint over every scene diluted what is essentially a decent premise for a Christmas story: A baby accidentally gets transported to the North Pole in Santa’s pack and is raised by elves. As he hits 30 and belatedly realizes he’s not, in fact, an elf, Buddy learns from Santa that his mother died long ago and his father lives in New York City.
Director Gavin Mayer reached deep into the local and national talent pool for this one and came up with a royal flush. The ace is Josh Houghton, a 6’6” string bean who uses every inch of his rubbery body to invest Buddy with the childish energy required of the role. Channeling the voice of SpongeBob and rocking a bright green elf costume at the top of the show, he towers over the elves at the North Pole. Not only is Houghton naturally a head taller than everyone else, Mayer has all of them on their knees, with their elf shoes poking out from their kneecaps — a clever device that establishes the spirit of the show from the get-go.
Props to scenic and costume designers Laura K. Love and Pheiobe H. Boynton, whose sets and costumes explode with color and launch us immediately into the world of the play.
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Force of nature
Being annoying and endearing simultaneously is a tough challenge for an actor, and it’s all too easy to lean into the former. The sold-out house on opening night at the Arvada Center was in Houghton’s corner from the start, and we soon learned it was impossible to take our eyes off him. Buddy is defined by his elfishness, his absolute devotion to the everything Christmas and Santa and a level of naivete about the real world rivaling a babe unborn. To become this character, Houghton gives himself over entirely to the part — a level of commitment not often seen in light comedies such as this.
To keep the larger-than-life Houghton from overwhelming each scene, it takes some strong players to round out the cast. Arvada Center regular Mark Devine (recently seen in “Mamma Mia!”) is tremendous as Buddy’s all-work-no-play dad, Walter Hobbs. Essentially playing the scrooge character, Devine does a very nice job with that arc as he moves from calling security after first meeting Buddy to embracing him as his son and, of course, getting on board with the whole North Pole thing.
As Buddy’s love interest, Jovie, Arvada newcomer Leslie Hiatt is perfect as the jaded single, befuddled by the fact that she’s fallen for an elf (or at least a guy who thinks he’s one). Another Arvada regular, Sharon Kay White, takes a smaller role as Walter’s secretary and blows it up into a standout performance. Playing both Santa and Walter’s boss Mr. Greenway, Colin Alexander brings a career’s worth of comedic chops and his extraordinary voice to both roles.
More than just a good cast
The quality level of “Elf — The Musical” at the Arvada Center extends to every facet of the show, from Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck’s reliably excellent choreography to the tight pit orchestra led by Christopher Baggage and the wonderful ensemble players, who bring to life everything from elves and dejected department-store Santas to office workers, cops and waitresses. This one even deserves a shoutout to the stage manager, Lisa Cook, whose traffic control — even on opening night — was brisk and precise, with the kind of smooth set transitions that help establish Arvada’s theater program as one of the best in Colorado.
I was a bit of the scrooge myself, and I went into “Elf” not expecting to like it much. I left with a big smile on my face and a nice reminder of how powerful good theater can be. With the thunderous standing ovation ringing in my ears, I headed to my car thinking Buddy had maybe, just maybe, grown my grinch-y heart another size or two.
“Elf — The Musical” plays at the Arvada Center through Dec. 23. Tickets and showtimes are available at http://www.arvadacenter.org.
Alex Miller is the editor of OnStageColorado.com, a guide to live theater around the state.