TAMPA — Elf is a pleasant surprise. I must admit that a musical made from the Will Ferrell movie about Santa's overgrown human helper did not seem promising. But any show that manages to come up with a madcap torch song like Never Fall in Love (With an Elf) or a big number with a group of disgruntled Santas in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve is okay in my book.
And never underestimate the draw of a hit movie title. A near sellout crowd of 2,226, including many young people and children, turned out for Tuesday night's opening at the Straz Center, decorated for the holidays with plenty of lights and greenery. Or, as one of the songs in the show puts it, Sparklejollytwinklejingley.
Matthew Sklar (music) and Chad Beguelin (lyrics) are becoming accustomed to adapting movies into stage musicals. They wrote the pop-rock score of The Wedding Singer, an underrated show, and now their treatment of Elf deftly treads a fine line between sentimentality and wit, between kid's stuff and enough cleverness to keep the grown-ups amused. Some of their Christmas songs are truly refreshing alternatives to the usual holiday cheer.
Of course, fans can be picky about their favorite movies, and since I have not seen Elf on screen, I don't know what beloved bits were left out by book writers Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin. But on the musical's terms, their rendering of Buddy the elf in search of his dad in New York expertly accommodates the Sklar-Beguelin score.
Certainly, Matt Kopec doesn't much resemble Will Ferrell, except that he is 6 feet tall and wears green tights. Kopec is a maniacal performer, grinning wildly, busting out all over every time he opens his mouth in song and flashing jazz hands when hoofing. Still, his Buddy is a suitably innocent, dorky presence, if slightly exhausting. At the North Pole, Buddy looms over the other elves, who skitter around on their knees, and have a dance number in which they do their steps with kneepads instead of tap shoes (choreography is by Connor Gallagher). Gordon Gray is the good-natured Santa who keeps his list of who's been naughty and nice on an iPad.
When Buddy finds his dad (their relationship confirmed by matching hair samples), Walter Hobbs (Drew Pulver) turns out to be a Scrooge-like children's book publisher with no time for Christmas. Some of the sweeter moments in the show are duets by Walter's wife Emily (Julia Louise Hosack) and 12-year-old son Michael (Connor Barth), such as their ode to the spirit of the season, I'll Believe in You.
As Jovie, the cynical Macy's elf that Buddy falls for, Kate Hennies has the show's best song, warning that "You're in for sleepless nights / If you date a guy / Who has a thing for tights." Nobody Cares About Santa features out-of-work Santas winding down the long Christmas season with dinner at the Chung Fu Palace with Buddy and a high-kicking waitress.
This five-city touring production directed by Sam Scalamoni is kind of a ramshackle affair, with a non-Equity cast and rudimentary scenery — Santa's sleigh takes off for a rather wobbly flight over Central Park at the end — but its unpretentious charm carries the day. The small orchestra, conducted by Alan J. Plado, does a decent job with the brassy score.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.