Review: ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’ at Keegan Theatre

Capitalism. Exploitation. Greed. It’s the holiday season, folks, and your kids shouldn’t lose out on the fun. At Keegan Theatre’s The Elves and the Shoemaker, they won’t.

Written by Kristin Walter and directed by Alexis J. Hartwick, the family-friendly matinee tells the Grimm Brothers Christmas tale in a wonderfully interactive, funny and easy-to-follow manner. It’s silly, it’s clever and it’s truly fun for all ages.

Duane Richards, Jake Null, Maggie Leigh Walker. Photo by Mike Kozemchak.
Duane Richards, Jake Null, Maggie Leigh Walker in the elves and the shoemaker. Photo by Mike Kozemchak.

A quick rundown: Eric (Jake Null) has moved his wife Fiona (Maggie Leigh Walker) and daughter Shannon (Emily Dwornik) to a small village to follow his dreams of making and selling shoes. There’s one big hitch: He builds the most uncomfortable shoes around, and neither Fiona nor Shannon have the heart to tell him.

Then Shannon makes a trade with a mysterious peddler (Duane Richards) and wins a mystical necklace, through which she calls elves to help save the shoe business.

The elves, Herbie (Joe Baker) and Zuzu (Debora Crabbe), are pulled against their will each evening to the shoemaker’s cottage, where they transform Eric’s monstrous shoes into feet-cushions for the ages.

Boy does a windfall come. Word spreads of the ultra-comfy, ultra-versatile shoes and the family starts raking in the cash. Greed nearly tears them apart when the whole arrangement unravels, prompting an emotional reckoning with the elves whose lives they have inadvertently ruined.

Is forgiveness waiting under the tree? Your kids can only find out by going to (and participating in) the show. And participate they can. Throughout the show, the audience takes a central role, helping pitch ideas to Shannon to tell her dad why she doesn’t wear the shoes anymore, serving up a big dose of opinion regarding the state of the shoes in general, and more.

It’s the perfect recipe to keep the young audience engaged for the hour-long spectacle, and giggles will abound.

This is a show of many strengths, headlined by an unstoppable cast. As elves, Baker and Crabbe hop, role and jump around with tenacious grace and energy, and Crabbe especially steals the show with her exciting performance as the shoe-repairing work slowly drains her life away.

Dwornik and Walker, too, shine as the unwilling family members to the money-obsessed Eric. Walker especially, who plays his wife, paints a great picture of a wife who puts in all the time and work and gets no credit, often while gingerly walking about, oppressed by painful shoes.

Debora Crabbe. Photo by Mike Kozemchak.
Debora Crabbe. Photo by Mike Kozemchak.

Then there’s Richards, who plays various shoe buyers, and whose role and performance cement this show as the greatest crossover event in a generation. At one point, he’s a prince on his way to save a sleeping damsel in distress. At another, he’s seeking the second glass-slipper of a set. The list goes on and on and he brings to each role a certain je ne sais quois, a certain over-the-top absurdity that brought roars from the crowd.

He’s not the only children’s fable crossover present in the show, but I won’t ruin the others. One thing: those references to various children’s fables seemed somewhat lost on my fellow audience members, or at least the young ones, who for their part didn’t react strongly to them. But they weren’t lost on this twenty-three-year-old, and I found the show much richer for them.

Set designer Matthew Keenan (props by Cindy Landrum Jacobs) creates a fantastic world, all inside the family cottage. Replete with low-class fixings, and a wildly unkempt upper shelf filled with all manner of household riffraff, the cottage serves well as the home and shop of the family. And lighting designer Dan Martin and Sound design Jake Null skillfully transform the cottage’s inside to a field or forest at various points with a tasteful dash of green light and splash of bird sounds.

The star of the show, though, were the costumes. Shannon Marie Sheridan, who designed them, builds an increasingly opulent wardrobe for the shoe selling family as they accumulate riches. Sure, Eric’s constant money counting shows they’re rich, but the costume’s seal the deal as they progress from rags to dresses to furs, tiaras, incredible jewelry and more. And with each appearance from some fabled shoe-buyer, a different wonderful costume.

All together it creates a believable, rich, and engrossing world, one where forgiveness has the final say, and children’s voices from the audience have a chance to shine.

Running time: One hour with no intermission. 

The Elves and the Shoemaker plays through December 30, 2018, at the Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church St NW, in Washington, DC. Buy tickets at the door or online.