SALT LAKE CITY — The original is always better, or so the saying goes.
It’s no different with touring musicals. “Elf the Musical,” that played the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater this past holiday weekend, left this reviewer, at least, longing to go home and watch the 2003 movie that inspired the traveling musical.
But before you call me a Grinch, know that “Elf the Musical” was the perfect escape that put audiences in the holiday spirit, with shredder-paper snow, flying sleighs and Santa Claus.
However, instead of escaping into the story, I often found myself comparing everything to the movie — something I haven’t always done with movie-inspired musicals.
In this weak musical adaptation of the popular 2003 Will Ferrell Christmas movie, a young orphan named Buddy mistakenly crawls into Santa’s bag of gifts and is transported back to the North Pole. Unaware that he is actually human, Buddy’s enormous size and poor toy-making abilities cause him to face the fact that he is not actually an elf.
With Santa’s permission, Buddy embarks on a journey to New York City to find his birth father, discover his true identity and help New York remember the true meaning of Christmas.
As Buddy the Elf, Sam Hartley was charming, with a soaring melodic voice, but he wasn’t truly “happy all the time,” like the song suggests. Rather, this Buddy lacked the sense of wonder that made Ferrell's Buddy the Elf so lovable in the movie.
And instead of transforming Macy’s into a magical wonderland of paper snowflakes and Lite Brite welcome signs, the musical’s store transformation to welcome Santa Claus was underwhelming.
But despite all this, there were several positives of the show.
BYU graduate Heather Jefferies took a star-making turn as Buddy’s dad’s secretary, Deb. Her quirky take on the character was refreshing, making it seem that the bright lights of Broadway are in her future.
Young actor Quentin Booth II brought a sincerity to the role of Buddy's new brother Michael that felt deeper than the film — he seemed genuinely happy to finally have a brother.
The score is jam-packed with rousing anthems of holiday cheer, including “Christmastown,” “There is a Santa Claus,” and “Sparklejollytwinklejingley.” But the standout song of the evening was “I’ll Believe in You,” a touching, sincere plea from Michael to Santa to just have one great day with his dad for Christmas.
The musical did pay homage to a few classic elements of the movie, like Buddy running himself into a dizzy fog in the circular doors of a NYC building, and telling the Macy’s Santa, “You sit on a throne of lies.”
A few moments from the movie were vastly underserved. The script did not do enough to make Buddy’s relationship with his love interest Jovie believable, and the musical missed an opportunity by not including the musical part from the movie where Jovie sings, “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”
Unfortunately, the set was distracting, with set pieces malfunctioning and not flying in at the right times.
In addition, “Elf the Musical” added some edginess that wasn’t needed. For example, a new elf named Tequila (with a bad Latina accent) bemoans her failed relationship with the head elf, and the script needlessly uses the occasional curse word.
But despite all of this, “Elf the Musical” did leave audience members smiling and hoping that “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is by singing loud for all to hear.” It's a message we can all use this Christmas season.
Content advisory: "Elf the Musical" contains some cursing, but no strong language.
Leigh owns every Broadway musical cast recording money can buy, and visits New York City with her husband at least once a year to see all of the new shows. Email her at [email protected].