Spirit Not Size Key in WW ‘Elf’

‘Tis the season and, in case you don’t know which one that is, take a look on stage at Warsaw’s Wagon Wheel Theatre where the musical “Elf” made its debut Friday evening.

Buddy the Elf (Stephen Wallem, center) works with fellow elves in Santa’s workshop in the Wagon Wheel Theatre production of ELF The Musical.

“Elf,” with book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Chad Beguelin, is based on the 2003 movie of the same name starring Will Farrell. It came to Broadway for the Christmas seasons in 2010 and 2012 and since then has been touring the country.

The Wagon Wheel production is the first in the Michiana area and, judging by the fact that all nine performances were sold out weeks before opening, obviously was eagerly awaited as the newest addition to the pantheon of Christmas musicals.

The tale of Buddy the Elf, played here with unfaltering good cheer by guest star Stephen Wallem, who discovers at age 30 the reason why he towers over his fellow elves in Santa’s North Pole workshop, delivers the traditional Christmas message of hope and determined good will resulting in the “everybody’s happy” finale.

Buddy the Elf (Stephen Wallem, center) helps the Manager (Michael Pacholski, center) hold tip a snowflake as the Christmas spirit spreads in the Wagon Wheel Theatre production of ELF The Musical.

Buddy leaves the North Pole with the blessing of Santa Claus (Gerald Cox) and heads for New York City to reconnect with his human father, “The World’s Greatest Dad,” Walter Hobbes (Ben Prayz) who, unfortunately, is on Santa’s “naughty” list, totally unaware of Buddy’s existence and definitely more of a Grinch than an elf.

Walter heads a children’s book publishing company and has a wife, Emily (Kira Lace Hawkins) and 12-year-old son Michael (Nate Friedberg), who take second place to business. Neither really arebelieves in Santa, making Buddy’s story doubly difficult to accept.

Nevertheless, Emily and Michael take him in and, of course, their faith is eventually restored. Buddy is undaunted and, no surprise, eventually wins everyone over to his belief that “singing loudly is the best way to spread Christmas cheer.” Along the way he falls in love with Jovie (Ellen Jenders), another Christmas skeptic, and gets eventual support from his dad’s office staff especially the Manager (Michael Pacholsko) and secretary Deb (Jennifer Dow).

Disgruntled seasonal Santas express their complaints to Buddy the Elf (Stephen Wallem, center) in the Wagon Wheel Theatre production off ELF The Musical.

Highlights of the production, directed and choreographed by artistic director Scott Michaels, are the ensemble dance numbers, most especially the ice skaters in “A Christmas Song,”  the disgruntled Santas in “Nobody Cares About Santa,”  the company employees in “Just Like Him,” Buddy and the elves in the opening “Christmastown.”and  the ensemble in “Sparkleyjollytwinklejingle,” a wonderful description of the season.

Buddy the Elf (Stephen Wallem, center) finds a new family with his little brother Michael (Nate Friedberg) and Jos new girlfriend Jovie (Ellen Jenders)in the Wagon Wheel Theatre prodictopn of ELF The Musical. (Photos by Scott Michaels)

Wallem does a charmingly believable job of Buddy’s introduction to the “human” world, especially as it applies to family and the Christmas season. His unflaggingly innocent good nature is catching and his childlike exuberance never goes over the top but takes the audience along in the spirit of the holiday.

In the “elf age” category are the many young performers who make up the diminutive workers in Santa’s workshop and are the junior members of the ensemble. Especially noteworthy is Friedberg who handles his solo work like a professional, making his duets with the marvelous Hawkins special moments in the overwhelming merriment.

As always, conductor/keyboardist Thomas N. Sterling and his eight-member orchestra make Sklar’s rather nondescript score very listenable. The set design by Michael Higgins and Jacki Pollnow and accompanying seasonal paraphernalia give the Wagon Wheel a visualization of Christmas.

All of the above was underscored by the enthusiasm of the full-to-capacity audience, made up  in large part by youngsters with accompanying adult friends and relatives. They certainly do believe and the feeling is catching.

NOTE: Some of the youngsters are very young, so be prepared for residual noise and motion as they head to and from the concession stand and other facilities.

After all, ‘tis the season!

“ELF the musical” plays through Dec. 16 in the Wagon Wheel Theatre, 2517 E. Center St., Warsaw, IN. For information, call (574) 267-8041.

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