Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review: Elf

Elf, the musical, reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield, produced by Walnut Street Theatre, directed by Marc Robin, set design by Robert Andrew Kovach, featuring Christopher Sutton, JD Triolo, Kate Fahrner.

Review: Elf


By Wendy Rosenfield

for the Inquirer

My family doesn’t celebrate Christmas. We don’t even have a Chanukah bush, that multiculti concession to the holiday’s ubiquity and allure. However, every year we watch Elf, and sometimes, even in the summer. Elf, the musical, warming up the Walnut Street Theatre’s mainstage, attempts to capture the film’s oddball appeal and repackage it with an even wider-eyed, toe-tapping, more universal appeal.

With a book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, music by Matthew Sklar and lyrics by Chad Beguelin, the story remains mostly the same. Buddy, living at the North Pole with Santa (under the mistaken impression he’s an elf), discovers he’s human, and sets out to find his father, a children’s book editor, who works, of course, in the Empire State Building. Along the way, he meets a girl, gains a family, and saves both Christmas and his workaholic father’s job. Sort of. The denouement turns out to be a bit sweeter and as unrealistic as an elf’s four main food groups. (“Candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup.”)

Robert Andrew Kovach’s wildly patterned, sleigh and snowflake festooned sets (one scene even adds a miniature--and skateable--version of Rockefeller Center’s iconic rink) add manic energy to a show that already exudes plenty. Marc Robin’s direction and choreography make the most of a tap-dancing, cheerful cast packed with children and adults. Of those notoriously show-stealing children, Malvern Prep student J.D. Triolo, as Buddy’s half-brother Michael, brings professional-level charm and a gorgeously clear voice to songs such as “There Is a Santa Claus.” 

Kate Fahrner and Charles Pistone also shine as Buddy’s grinchier counterparts, his girlfriend Jovie and father Walter, and a Chinese restaurant Santa singalong, “Nobody Cares About Santa,” a sort of Damn Yankees number--albeit with very different uniforms--captures some of the old Broadway spirit. 

But what of Buddy? Christopher Sutton has all the innocence and none of the weirdness Ferrell brought to the role. He’s a kinder, gentler version, resting at a solid six, while everything around him gets turned up to 11. This choice is certainly Robin’s prerogative, but it takes a while to warm up to Sutton, whose low-key style tends to swallow some lyrics and results in an inconsistent, if ultimately agreeable performance. 

The Walnut’s production, too, is ultimately agreeable. While some, like me, might miss the original’s sharper edges, sentimental Christmas-loving families not ready to call it a day after Wanamaker’s (now Macy’s) light show-viewing and Dickens Village-touring, will no doubt enjoy ending their day with Elf’s sugar rush. 

Playing at: Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St., Philadelphia. Through Sunday, Jan. 5. Tickets: $10-$95. Information: 800-982-2787 or

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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