Son of a nutcracker, what did they do to Elf? Back for a second stint in the West End, this musical version of the effervescent Will Ferrell film is an often flat night out. Despite some appealing performances and a tight candy-cane-twirling ensemble, it comes close to the blandly corporate Christmas experience it sets out to satirise and doesn’t muster a lot more joy than the kind of department store grotto in its story.
You know the plot: Buddy has been raised as an elf after crawling into Santa’s sack as a baby and winding up at the North Pole. He heads to New York to track down his father Walter, a hard-boiled publisher of children’s books, and brings disaster and cheer with him, while also finding love.
The tale is narrated not by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart’s character in the movie) but by Santa himself, from a Dr. Seuss-like perch. The eccentric spirit of that set design by Tim Goodchild is not matched by composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin’s songs, mostly vanilla diversions and syrupy ballads, whose humor never matches the original screenplay. A brassy number sung by disgruntled Father Christmas impersonators and a snazzy finale choreographed by Liam Steel are notable exceptions.
If the storytelling never feels fleet-footed, there are some amusing moments, mostly taken straight from the movie. As Buddy, who loves warm hugs more than Frozen’s Olaf, Simon Lipkin is funniest when desperately trying to get Walter’s attention. Lipkin’s Buddy bonds well with his newfound brother (played at this performance by Logan Clark) and with Walter’s wife, Emily (Rebecca Lock). But it never really seems like he is liberating their lives and the show feels safe and reluctant to go off-kilter.
You wish Philip Wm McKinley’s production made more of Georgina Castle’s voice though she has a good solo as the jaded Jovie who falls for Buddy. In the movie, James Caan played the publisher father with a grimace and a death stare. When Walter arrives, a Eugene O’Neill gag declares “the Iceman cometh” but the far-too-twinkly Strictly winner Tom Chambers – who tap dances well here – never dips below lukewarm in the role. There’s a melee of pop culture gags in Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan’s book, with hyperlocal New York jokes alongside particularly British references – as strange as finding Ferrell’s Elf in the current Asda advert.
With a hero devoted to bringing Christmas cheer by “singing loud for all to hear” this musical could have been a sweet festive treat but is altogether too stodgy.