Red Branch Theatre in Columbia has an early present for young audiences this season. On opening night of Harry Connick Jr.’s The Happy Elf, many of those in the next generation of theater-lovers came clad in dress-rehearsal costumes for Christmas morning — footed pajamas, long-sleeved pull-overs, or comfy woolen pants with slippers.
Mingling in the lobby before the show, nestled in their mom and dads arms, even the toddlers seemed to sense that something special was about to happen. Hopefully, the parents were there to explain the parts of the show that went sailing over the tiniest heads.
This live stage version of Connick’s TV special is simple enough, rally, but much of it banks on a sort of cockeyed hipster sense of the absurd. How to explain to true believers a mysterious city called Bluesville, where all the boys and girls have shown up on Santa’s “naughty” list?
The task of rescuing the people of Bluesville from a rut of pessimistic gloom (and streets cluttered with chunks of coal) falls upon Eubie, one of Santa’s most non-conformist elves. At Christmas time Eubie is known as “The Happy Elf” parading around the Eubie workshop like a giddy one-man band. That annoys the no-nonsense shop foreman, Norbert, who soon fires him.
So Eubie makes it his mission to rescue the citizens of Bluesville and prove his worth anew to the Big Boss himself, Santa Claus. With the help of a couple of friends and the magic protection of his own elf hat, Eubie arrives in Bluesville to investigate exactly what is the problem with the people there?
Much in the plot and setting plays to Connick’s well-known musical strengths. The songs are really less like show tunes than jazz tracks, full of riffs and motifs ranging from classic blues to swing and scat. At their best, the lyrics (also by Connick) have an irreverent charm, but they may test the patience of young audiences who just want everything to turn out happy.
The true Christmas spirit is on full display in the leading members of the Red Branch cast. Director Laura Greffen has filled the stage with talented and likable newcomers.
One could hardly wish for a sunnier Eubie than lanky Justin Moe. Beyond his Spock-like pointed ears and scarecrow frame, Moe delivers a genial and committed performance that is no less than inspiringly elf-conscious.
Red Branch favorite Seth Fallon makes a suitable counterpoint as the overbearing foreman, Norbert. If his character appears a bit underhanded at times, that’s because he is not only performing as himself but also operating an alter-ego puppet.
Katie Ganem has the most difficult path to applause playing Molly, the chief gloomy Gus in all of Bluesville. She more than redeems herself, though, when signing on to Eubie’s sing-along prescription of “Two Scoops of Christmas.”
Also contributing buoyant spirits and able voices are Courtney Branch, Megan Henderson, Adeline K. Sutter, Todd Hochkoppel, Cheryl Campo, Sarah Luckadoo, and Dean Allen Davis dressed all in red and white as Santa Claus.
Rick Westerkamp’s simple choreography proves quite effective here, as do the technical contributions of Lighting Designers Stephanie Lynn Williams and Amy Williamson, and the inventive Costume Designs of Andrew Malone.
Dustin Merrell is again in his accustomed position behind the baton, leading a live offstage pit band and coordinating that with the pre-recorded voiceover narration of Harry Connick, Jr.
Congratulations to the Red Branch Theatre Company for once again hosting a regional premiere musical. It’s a wonderful alternative to all the seasonal offerings. With a little elf-determination, you might still be able to secure some tickets for your family.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with a 10-minute intermission.
The Happy Elf plays through December 18, 2016 at Red Branch Theatre Company performing at the Drama Learning Center – 9130-I Red Branch Road, in Columbia, MD. For tickes, call the box office at (410) 997-9352, or purchase them online.