Review: ‘Elf The Musical’ at Pioneer Theatre Company

Christmas media can be a love-it-or-hate-it proposition—either you’re blasting Mariah Carey before Halloween is over or you cringe at all of the earnest merriness. Like it or not, though, we’re well into the most wonderful time of year, and Pioneer Theatre Company has a fun-for-the-whole-family idea for those unwilling to brave the cold (and crowds) to see the Christmas light-donned construction zone at Temple Square. Even if you’re not one to devour every Netflix holiday rom-com, PTC’s Elf The Musical is charming enough to unite Santa-believers and their parents, nostalgic millennials and anyone looking for an enjoyable, family-friendly musical. (In Utah, that’s pretty much everyone.) 

Jason Simon and Max Chernin in "Elf the Musical" at Pioneer Theatre Company
Jason Simon and Max Chernin in “Elf The Musical;” Photo courtesy Pioneer Theatre Company

The musical, narrated by Santa himself, begins at the North Pole with Buddy, (Max Chernin) an unnaturally tall elf who lacks his colleagues’ preternatural toy-making abilities. At age 30, Buddy overhears the real reason he doesn’t fit in at Santa’s Workshop—he is actually a human who accidentally crawled into Santa’s sack as an infant. Santa tells Buddy that his real dad Walter (Chirstopher Gurr), a children’s book publisher in New York City, does not know that he has a son, and, making matters worse, he’s on the naughty list. Adrift, Buddy heads south to meet his father, stepmother Emily (Mary Fanning Driggs) and 12-year-old stepbrother Michael (alternated between Austin Flamm and Grant Westcott). Unfortunately, Santa doesn’t tell Buddy to lose the yellow tights. 

The musical is based on, and in the shadow of, the 2003 movie starring Will Ferrell. The original film, now firmly in the Christmas movie canon, is a fish-out-of-water comedy that mines endless humor from the gulf between Buddy’s Christmas storybook upbringing and the normal adult world in New York City. Thanks to a clever concept, plenty of quotable lines and, especially, Ferrell’s performance, the original is a sentimental favorite, meaning the musical has big (pointy) shoes to fill.

PTC’s cheerful, eager-to-please production mostly succeeds. Sure, there are details for Scrooges (or maybe just tired parents) to nitpick. The score, with music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Chad Beguelin, is catchy, generally pleasant and totally forgettable—none of these songs are destined to become Christmas or musical theater classics. The source material has an irreverent streak, but at its core, it’s still a mushy-hearted holiday movie with a 100% earnest belief in the power of Christmas magic. (The plot, after all, is about an overworked man embracing the true meaning of Christmas, a tried-and-true staple from Dickens to Hallmark.) The updated-for-2021 book, by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, makes an effort to cut through the sweetness. A sassy Santa (Jason Simon) binge watches Squid Game and complains that PETA shut down his reindeer operation, and a few grownup-directed punchlines poke the boundaries of the PG rating. (It’s still fine for kids.) Still, the stage adaptation, which stretches to 2 ½ hours and adds an extra helping of musical theater cheese, only highlights the original movie’s cliches. 

Max Chernin and Antoinette Comer in "Elf The Musical" at Pioneer Theatre Company
Max Chernin and Antoinette Comer in “Elf The Musical;” Photo courtesy Pioneer Theatre Company

But if you’re at all susceptible to the Christmas magic everyone on stage keeps singing about, none of this will really matter. The formula is a part of the point—you know that Santa’s sleigh will fly at the exact right moment, the tone will be as warm as a mug of hot cocoa and everyone will live happily ever after. It’s easy to be won over by the flexible ensemble, who play both permanently chipper elves and a wide variety of normal New Yorkers, from a robotically friendly Macy’s perfume seller to a chorus of beleaguered mall Santas. Antoinette Comer is winning as Jovie, an unlucky-in-love cynic who begins dating Buddy.  The snow-globe inspired set from scenic designer James Kronzer is a lot of fun, as is the peppy choreography by Rommy Snadhu. Director Alan Muraoka strikes the right balance between energetic and overbearing, and the musical’s brisk pace never wears out its welcome.

While all of the cast is strong, the musical really rests on Chernin’s too-tall shoulders. It’s no easy task to play a role so closely associated with one actor—Ferrell’s iconic performance is so central to the original that I don’t envy anyone who tries to make it their own. Luckily, Chernin understands the assignment—he is totally committed, 100% earnest and a great singer and dancer to boot. He leans in, without winking to the audience, to the ridiculousness of the plot, which makes the jokes land harder and the sentimental moments more effective than they have any right to be. You’d have to be a cotton-headed ninny muggins to resist his charm.  

Elf The Musical will be at Pioneer Theatre Company through Dec. 18. For tickets and more information, visit their website. Stay on the nice list and wear your mask during the performance. Read more about arts in Utah.

Josh Petersen
Josh Petersen
Josh Petersen is the former Digital Editor of Salt Lake magazine, where he covered local art, food, culture and, most importantly, the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. He previously worked at Utah Style & Design and is a graduate of the University of Utah.

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