December is finally here and with it the icy chill, decorative twinkle lights and pumpkin-flavored everything, not to mention the best of traditional wintertime entertainment. But, for a moment, disregard the ugly-sweater parties, white elephant gifts and the spiked cider, and turn your attention to the Rep. This Christmas the Arkansas Repertory Theatre is toasting the season with the musical adaptation of the beloved 2003 film “Elf,” starring comedy superstar Will Ferrell.
Now, more than 10 years after the film’s release, “Elf” has become a holiday staple holding equal rank with claymation classics adored for decades since the affable elf with brilliant red curls was conceived. Its popularity wasn’t just due to the often slapstick appeal of Ferrell or the big blue doe eyes of a blonde Zooey Deschanel. Instead, the cult popularity stemmed from Buddy’s earnest lightheartedness and his awe-inspiring belief in something greater and more important than himself. Yes, the fact that Buddy also happens to be a gigantic 30-year-old man in tights certainly adds an appreciated level of absurdity. But then again, it’s a Christmas tale.
As a reminder, Buddy the Elf is the playful protagonist. A human raised among elves in the North Pole after crawling into Santa’s bag of toys as child, Buddy is unaware of his true origins. Although he (quite literally) towers above his fellow elves and is lacking an aptitude for toy-making that the other elves have, Buddy remains clueless that he is human. That is, until he eventually confronts the obvious truth.
Determined to find his biological father and learn more about his true identity, Buddy sets off on a magical journey to New York City. From here, hijinks ensue as Buddy attempts to connect with a new family while also adjusting to life among other humans.
Director Nicole Capri says that the musical does depart from the film in some regard, the most obvious being the dazzling musical scores and dance numbers. According to Capri, the cast might be the largest to hit the Rep’s stage since “Les Mis.”
Fans of the film shouldn’t worry though: The classic Buddy the Elf moments remain, such as Buddy’s constant declarations that Santa is his best friend and, perhaps more memorably, his fondness for spaghetti doused with maple syrup.
Ethan Paulini, the actor playing the role of Buddy in the Rep’s production (curly red wig and all), says that Buddy’s childlike optimism is what endears him to audiences of all ages.
“Because he was so sheltered growing up and raised by elves, Buddy has no subtext. He just says everything on his mind and speaks at face value.”
But at the heart of this cult Christmas tale are larger themes that resonate with young and older audiences alike. For one, Paulini says that, despite the obvious humor inherent within Buddy’s character, this musical is not just another sugarcoated Christmas story. Buddy is challenged throughout and, in turn, his friends and family also confronted with difficult circumstances that address larger themes of love, loss and belief. Oh and, of course, the true meaning of Christmas.
“No matter how old you are and no matter how everything is cemented in place, there’s always room to grow and learn from someone,” Paulini says.
Capri echoes these sentiments and pinpoints a specific scene in the musical.
“There’s a moment in the show when Buddy is introducing his dad to Santa Claus. Santa asks him if he believes, and his father responds that he just doesn’t know. So much has changed and so much has happened. Buddy then responds, ‘but he’s standing right in front of you.’ “
Capri says that this scene speaks to the jaded person in all of us, the one that begs, “How can you not trust something that’s right in front of you?”
“Buddy has this childlike wonder,” Capri says. “We all want to believe in Santa Claus, and he still does. He’s so charismatic that everyone around him wants to believe.”
Audiences should expect a production complete with adorable children dressed as elves, memorable musical numbers, and a hearty dose of the absurd, cleverly alternated with the sentimental and true. Yet, more importantly, let the musical do what musicals do best. Allow yourself to be transported, to believe in Santa, to revel in the dancing and singing elves.
After all, for a couple of hours anyone can believe.