Review: ‘Elf the Musical’ at Olney Theatre Center

The Holidays are upon us and with them comes the rush of themed movies, music, and theater. Olney Theatre Center welcomes the holiday season with their production of Elf the Musical. Based on the 2003 movie starring Will Ferrell that quickly became a Christmas favorite, the musical takes the original story and adds the flare of music and dance, with Book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, Music by Matthew Sklar, and Lyrics by Chad Beguelin.

David Schlumpf as Buddy and the ensemble of ELF THE MUSICAL at Olney Theatre Center, directed by Michael Bobbitt, choreographed by Tara Jeanne Vallee, music direction by Angie Benson. (Photo: Stan Barouh)

Michael J. Bobbitt serves as director of this heartening, family-friendly show and, with his technical team, does a magical job of creating and blending the feel of animation and live-action.  

The costumes, designed by Kendra Rai, are vibrant and warm, and there are animal puppets that will fascinate the kids, designed by Kylie Clark (even a Mr. Narwhal).

Scenic design, by Daniel Ettinger, includes multiple flats that are painted with cartoon-style ornaments or lit with projections (designed by Sarah Tundermann) of large snowflakes or an outline sketch of the New York City skyline.  

For the few that may be unfamiliar, the story follows Buddy the Elf, who accidentally ended up in Santa’s bag as a baby and was then raised by the elves in Christmastown to believe that he too was an elf. But Buddy learns the truth, including that his real father lived in New York, and decides to journey out into the human world where he really belonged.

There are a few differences between the play and the original movie, but nothing that affects the main plot. Santa, played by Kevin McAllister, is the narrator of the story (instead of Papa Elf) and takes on a more fatherly role with Buddy (David Schlumpf).

Buddy’s biological father, Walter Hobbs played by Bobby Smith, is on the naughty list for not believing in Santa. Smith plays the all-work and no-play character with frustration and a desperation to keep his job in publishing amid a major printing error, allowing for sympathy that keeps his character from being a complete antagonist. Along with an underlying charm that Smith exudes on stage, Walter is a lovable “bad guy” who is easy to root for.

Schlumpf plays Buddy with a genuine joy and fascination about everything and everyone around him. Buddy is new to the human world and his naiveté about the most basic things- advertising ploys claiming “the best” of something and the basic food groups outside of syrup, candy corn, candy canes, and candy- is child-like and sincere, which endears him to most of the people he encounters. Most. But not all.

Not surprisingly, Walter-who leads his employees in singing how Christmas gets “In the Way”- is one that has neither the time nor the patience for Buddy when he shows up and promptly has security remove him from his office.

Assuming Buddy, who is decked out in full elf gear (another shout-out to Costume Designer Rai), is a holiday department store employee, the guards take him to the Macy’s department store. Once deposited there, the manager (Calvin McCullough) mistakes Buddy for someone sent from the corporate office and allows him to take charge of decorating for Christmas and the arrival of “Santa” in the store the next morning. McCullough as the Macy’s manager is a stand-out in the show, executing impeccable comic-timing and a larger than life character.

David Schlumpf as Buddy and Patricia Hurley as Jovie in ELF THE MUSICAL at Olney Theatre Center. (Photo: Stan Barouh)

Although the Macy’s employees are at first resentful about this stranger in their store, Schlumpf’s Buddy is the master of charisma and soon has the whole department in the full Christmas mood, singing “Sparklejollytwinklejingley.” Buddy even wins over the cheerless yet beautiful employee Jovie (Patricia Hurley), who agrees to “eat food” with him.

As the love interest, Hurley’s Jovie seems the opposite of Buddy’s energy and expressiveness, but Buddy is able to earn her trust and the two have a refreshingly honest connection. They end up skating (yes, I said skating!) and sing “A Christmas Song” with the Company.

There are many gorgeous songs throughout the production, shaped with the guidance of Musical Director Angie Benson, but a highlight is Hurley singing “Never Fall In Love.”

The ensemble does their fair share of fabulous singing and dancing. The choreography, by Tara Jeanne Valle, is exciting and explosive, transforming numbers, like “Nobody Cares About Santa” (at the top of Act 2), into showstoppers.

Another lively number is “Just Like Him,” which takes place in Walter’s office. Nova Payton plays Deb, Walter’s bubbly, kind, and hilarious assistant (Payton is another stand-out in the show and if I were to complain about anything it would be that I wanted to see her more). Deb takes an instant liking to Buddy. Payton and Schlumpf are like kindred spirits and lead the company in celebrating how much Buddy is like his Dad, or at least how much Buddy wishes it was so.

Walter’s wife, Emily (Janine Sunday), and son, Michael (Tyler Smallwood), are also crucial characters and staunch non-believers in Santa, though not nearly as curmudgeonly as Walter. But Buddy convinces them to write letters to Santa and the two sing a lovely duet, “I’ll Believe in You,” asking for Walter to be more present in their lives, and promising Santa they will believe if he can make their impossible wish a reality.

Buddy the Elf is a good-hearted character who simply wants to spread love and happiness. His story is full of many positive themes that make for the perfect, kid-friendly, feel-good theater that is craved this time of year.

Elf the Musical teaches about trust, the importance of family, and the pay-it-forward effects of positivity and joy. Olney has created a stellar production that will entertain the young and old, inspiring good deeds and encouraging faith in the great potential of humankind to be generous, loving, and kind to each other and the world around us.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

Elf the Musical plays through January 6th, 2018, at the Olney Theatre Center – 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD 20832. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 924-3400 or purchase them online.

Jessica Bennett (Ensemble), Michelle Carter (Ensemble), Jennifer Flohr (Ensemble), Isabel Garcia (Ensemble), Andre Hinds (Ensemble), Marty Austin Lamar (Charlie/Mr. Greenway), Calvin McCullough (Ensemble), Christian Montgomery (Ensemble), Taylor Elise Rector (Ensemble), Connor James Reilly (Ensemble), Sarah Anne Sillers (Ensemble), David Singleton (Ensemble), Lara Zinn (Ensemble), Angie Benson (Music Director), Daniel Ettinger (Set Designer), Kendra Rai (Costume Designer), Max Doolittle (Lighting Designer), Kylie Clark (Puppet Designer), Sarah Tundermann (Projections Designer), Matt Rowe (Sound Designer), Dori Beau Seigneur (Wig Designer), John Keith Hall (stage manager)