On 19 August 2015, the BBC reported:
Tickets costing up to £250 to see the Elf musical in London’s West End have been at the centre of a backlash on social media.
These were the most expensive tickets in the West End, it was reported, approaching the sort of price American producers were used to harvesting from audiences desperate for Hamilton or The Book of Mormon. But the difference was that this was a musical unknown in the West End and one that had had, at best, mediocre runs on Broadway in 2010 and 2012. This was not a proven blockbuster; nor was there a superstar in the cast.
But the bad will generated by the reported high cost of tickets shrouded all discussion of Elf. Which is ironic given the central message of the piece is that greed and obsession with money is BAD and spending time with ones loved ones is GOOD. If the show had not faced the barrage of opposition about reportedly high ticket prices, it may have garnered better reviews; if its marketing emphasis had been about getting families into the theatre rather than into the Bankruptcy courts, it might have twinkled like a true Christmas decoration in the minds of many.
Part of the problem wrapped up in the ticket prices is the venue and the short run of ten weeks. The Dominion is a huge barn of a theatre, far too big for this most intimate and sugary tale of truths, silliness and sentimentality to work at its best. A short run and a large venue almost inevitably lead to high ticket prices. No one would think about charging £250 for a ticket to The Lion King or Mary Poppins or a pantomime, so what possessed the producers here to think such prices were appropriate?
These questions are all important because the bad publicity generated by the reports about ticket prices has really undermined the response to Elf. Additionally, it seems to have suffered from a sniffy disdain, as if a musical of a movie such as Elf could never be a worthwhile musical. At its core, it is a basic reworking of key elements of A Christmas Carol and Miracle on 34th Street, with some elvish comedy interlaced, and a touch of How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying – so it comes with a great resonance inbuilt.
Elf is precisely what any rational person would expect it to be: brilliant family fare for the festive season, full of great, hum-hum-hummable songs, difficult and exuberant dance sequences, rivers of sentimental tosh, some Santa magic and a volcanic central performance from Ben Forster, full of irrepressible charm, goofy extremity and vivacious physicality, all sewn together with a singing voice of powerful intensity and wide range. It is about as good as it gets for this sort of seasonal entertainment.
Make no mistake: Elfis far superior to wonder.land, The Lorax, A Christmas Carol (the Jim Broadbent version) or Cinderella at the Lyric Hammersmith. Elfis an unpretentious, good old fashioned book musical, fuelled with toe-tapping tunes, infectious humour and, importantly, genuine heart. Sure it might not be Sunday In The Park With George,Gypsy, Hamilton or Wicked or whatever any single person regards as the pinnacle of music theatre, but it does not pretend to be that. It is musical froth, joyous in almost every way.
The book, by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, charts the exploits of Buddy, a baby abandoned at birth and taken into foster care by Santa’s elves who raise him as their own. But Buddy, being human, grows much taller than his elven brethren and is a little on the clumsy/klutzy/forgetful side. Santa sends him away from the North Pole to find his real family and the intrepid Buddy trudges across the globe to get to Manhattan.
There he finds his father, a high-flying publishing executive who spends too much time at the office and not enough time with his other son, Michael, and his patient wife, Emily. At first, Walter, Buddy’s father, rejects him, finds it incomprehensible that he could be his child, but Buddy bonds with Michael and soon wins over Walter. But a work crisis causes Walter to lose his temper with Buddy and send him away, heartbroken.
Along the way, Buddy meets and flirts with a lonely L.A. lass, Jovie, and helps thaw out her heart. But he makes mistakes there too, forgetting a date in Central Park. How Buddy reconciles with Walter, marries Jovie, and helps Santa, whose sleigh has been derailed by the lack of Christmas spirit in Manhattan, is cutely done, with dollops of syrupy sentimentality and moments of aching truth along the way.
A story-within-a-story device involving Santa Claus holds the many narrative threads together in a clever way. Meehan and Martin tell the tale nicely and in a constantly fresh way. Act One is too long but that is not fatal; Act Two is practically perfect in every way.
Matthew Sklar’s score is jaunty, splendidly tuneful and genuinely fun. There are big production numbers, with key changes that soar like Santa’s reindeer, reflective ballads and patter treats. Chad Beguelin provides excellent and sometimes tongue-twisting lyrics that are crisp and which sparkle. Think of the joy you’ll bring if you just close your eyes – and sing is as catchy a phrase as they come, a fact demonstrated by the numbers of little folk emerging from the theatre, eyes aglow, chanting those words and their accompanying musical phrase.
Tim Goodchild’s design is splendid. There are many locations in Buddy’s tale and, in an inspired touch, Goodchild uses the notion of a child’s pop-up story book as the central design notion: each space is created as though it popped up from the treasured tome. This allows for a simplified two-dimensional effect and many options – from Central Park and the North Pole to The Rockafeller Centre, with offices and the Hobbs’ home along the way. The final scenes of snowing in Central Park and Santa soaring above the auditorium in his sleigh are the stuff of magical snow globes. It all works enchantingly.
Director and Choreographer, Morgan Young, ensures that everything moves along at a good pace, although some longueurs have developed in scene changes and in some comic business, where performers appear to have decided that milking laughs (dry, as it happens) is preferable to short, snappy execution which seems to be what Large had in mind. They are wrong about this.
The ensemble routines are quite impressive, although not all members of the company attack the discipline of unity with the vigour and precision that might be expected. Mark Iles stood out in many routines for his precision.
But, in the end, this is a show which succeeds or fails on the magnetism, skill and ability of its leading man and Ben Forster is no kind of disappointment. Indeed, he is a triumph in every way.
Forster has a genuine appeal and comedic sense which reminds one of the early Michael Crawford – except that Forster can really, really sing. He has an effortless and almost supersonic top; his high notes are brilliant, clean and fulsome. There is a lustre to his voice which is enchanting and he matches that with every aspect of his performance.
“Full-throttle” does not come close to describing the energy and attack Forster displays here. Single-handedly, he winds the action up and lets it spring into the audience. There is a moment with bells which is almost a circus act; at other points, he perfectly channels the eager and uncomprehending spirit of the man-child.
Although humour is a focus for Forster, he does not lose sight of the heart – and he is brilliant at displaying the hurt, loneliness and revelations that Buddy experiences along his journey. His relationship with his lost family is superbly conveyed, as is his developing love for Jovie. Only the hardest of hearts would be unmoved by the final scenes of connubial and new-born baby bliss. And his delivery of World’s Greatest Dad is show-stopping.
Kimberley Walsh is pretty in form and voice as Jovie and it is curiously hypnotic watching her fall under the unlikely spell of Buddy. Her voice is true but not as expressive as it might be, especially in Never Fall In Love (with an Elf) but nevertheless she is largely irresistible.
Joe McGann is suitably Scrooge-like as Walter and he manages his conversion to Real Good Dad with convincing panache. Jessica Martin is superb as Mother Emily, and her duet with Michael (a seriously impressive Ilan Galkoff – what a voice!), There Is A Santa Claus, is really terrific.
Jennie Dale over-eggs the Christmas pudding as Deb. She has a knockout voice and great comic timing, but needs to remember that Less is More. Mark McKerracher is quite lovely as the benign, but jaded, Santa Claus, but completely throws away the role of Mr Greenway in a torrent of rushed incomprehensibility.
The ensemble sing exceptionally well and numbers like Christmas Town, Just Like Him, A Christmas Song, Nobody Cares About Santa, and The Story Of Buddy are attacked with impressive tone and line. Tapping or clapping along is almost irresistible throughout these numbers.
Forget about the nonsense about ticket prices. Elf is terrific entertainment for the whole family. I doubt anyone would refuse a Buddy like Forster – he is an Elf for all seasons.