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MusicalFare puts its best foot forward in the Christmas musical ELF

THE BASICS: ELF, THE MUSICAL by Martin, Beguelin, and Sklar, directed by Michael Walline, with a large talented cast starring Chris J. Handley as “Buddy,” opened on December 22 and runs through December 22, 2019, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays at 7:30, Saturdays at 3:30 and 7:30, Sundays at 2 at MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main Street, Amherst (839-8540). Suggestion: enter via Getzville Road. Runtime: 2-1/2 hours with one intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: From the MusicalFare publicity: “Based on the beloved holiday film, Buddy, a young orphan, mistakenly crawls into Santa’s bag of gifts and is transported to the North Pole.  He is raised, unaware that he is actually a human, until his enormous size and poor toy-making abilities cause him to face the truth.  Buddy then embarks on a journey to New York City to find his birth father and discover his true identity and along the way help his new family remember the true meaning of Christmas.” That’s the plot, but of course, the charm is in the telling of the story, the dozens of little relationships, the talent, the sets, the costumes, the band, the lights, the glitz, the singing, the dancing, the on-stage “ice” skating, and the tap dancing finale. If you yourself have lost the Christmas spirit, if you find yourself yelling at the radio for playing Christmas music incessantly, if all the store displays seem a little premature, this is a really fun way to kick off the holidays that will, guaranteed, make you feel good.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Full disclosure: I can’t stand the actor Will Ferrell and I’ve successfully avoided seeing the movie ELF ever since it came out in 2003 (even though critics say it’s one of Ferrell’s best roles). So when I went to MusicalFare on opening night to see the 2010 musical based on that movie, I had a real “chip on my shoulder show me” attitude and, just in case, before I sat down, I made sure that I stopped at the full-service bar and pre-ordered an intermission drink. You know, just in case. (Ginger Ale, $2.50, ice-cold, hit the spot.)

Nick Lama as Santa, Chris Handley as Buddy | Source MusicalFare

As it turned out, I was having such a great time that by said intermission I took my soda pop and went over to the box office and bought tickets to two of the upcoming cabarets. Speaking of tickets, before the show, MusicalFare Artistic and Executive Director Randy Kramer warned people that 80% of the ELF run had already been sold and to tell people (but only the people we liked) to get their tickets soon. (It was the same last year with their sold-out CHRISTMAS OVER THE TAVERN.)

I’m being slightly facetious here. I wasn’t really that worried about the musical because I knew that in the role of Buddy the Elf the show starred Chris Handley, recently seen in a number of different shows all over town, and one from the past to which we frequently refer, MusicalFare’s BASKERVILLE. That was a show that in our house serves as a benchmark of comedic excellence. Then, this summer at Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s THE TEMPEST Handley almost stole the show as the court jester Trinculo. He’s a funny guy and a total professional on stage who never disappoints.

And, everyone got a big kick out of Nick Lama as Santa Claus. Lama’s performance last season in ALMOST, MAINE made me (and others) sit up and start to appreciate this local actor. Then, last month, I wrote about Lama: “…his Inspector Kemp in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is just spot on. Wow. Lama is runnin’ with the big dogs now and is just one of the many reasons to get over to this show….” Change the name of the role to Santa Claus and the name of the play to ELF and the sentence stands.

Three who appear regularly on stage across town at the Theatre of Youth got right into the spirit of this play about a well-intended boy, who is the son of a publisher of children’s books, who happened to be raised by elves. TOY stars Melinda Capeles, Dan Urtz, and especially the effervescent Alexandria Watts, all in a variety of ensemble roles, brought to MusicalFare’s stage their usual high energy.

And the list of outstanding talent goes on and on including BIG FISH stars Lou Colaiacovo as the uptight dad and Stevie Jackson as the tough-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold love interest, Jovie. Actually, I was so impressed by Ms. Jackson, and just now being informed that the role of Jovie is played in ELF the movie by Zooey Deschanel, I might, perhaps, rent the movie. Maybe.

Also good to see again on stage was Rheanna Gallego recently outstanding as Anybodys in WEST SIDE STORY, and Jake Hayes, Artie nominated for his Audrey II (the plant) in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.

ELF is an ensemble musical, and the super talented (and well-choreographed and directed) cast also includes real-life couple Adrienne and Chris Cummings, Johnny Kiener, Bob Mazierski, Jennifer Mysliwy (whose husband Brian the comedic actor and their three sons were there opening night) and Michael Wachowiak who just finished brilliantly directing MusicalFare Cabaret’s DISENCHANTED. By the way, have you noticed the number of directors in Buffalo whose last names begin with “W”? There’s Wachowiak, Walline, Warfield, Weiser, and Weyand. Hmmm.

Director and Choreographer Michael Walline doesn’t miss a trick.

Speaking of Director and Choreographer Michael Walline, he doesn’t miss a trick. Entrances and exits are smooth, the blocking seems perfectly natural, surprise reveals are a surprise, everybody on stage has shtick, the curtain call was seamless, and Mr. Walline’s special talent is creating choreography, even spangles-top-hats-and-canes tap dancing, in which everybody looks good. I swear, if the television show “Dancing with the Stars” hired Mr. Walline, he could have made former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer look good. Well, maybe not. But you get my point.

The set by Chris Cavanagh is dazzling and his lighting and SFX all work seamlessly. What also works, as always, are the costumes, hair, wig, and make-up designed by the Drozd sisters, Kari and Susan. Music direction by Theresa Quinn with her “regulars” – Peggy Scalzo, drums; Dave Siegfried, bass; and Jimi Runfola, reeds, is tight.

Three of the four authors of ELF are also the team that created Broadway’s THE PROM and that includes lyrics by Chad Beguelin (DISNEY’S ALADDIN), book by Bob Martin (THE DROWSY CHAPERONE), and music by Matthew Sklar. Also collaborating on the book here was Thomas Meehan (ANNIE) who has also collaborated with Mel Brooks on various projects including THE PRODUCERS and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. It’s just a conjecture, but knowing that, I’d say that much of the script’s magic (and there’s a lot) was Meehan’s doing.

The weak link in this creative quartet, to me, is Mr. Sklar, the composer. The melodies seemed rather forced and uninspired, rather like things composed in music theory class just to complete the assignment (as one does or at least I used to). I get it. Not everybody can be Lin-Manuel Miranda (HAMILTON) or Elton John (LION KING). But I was hoping for more in the melody department.

At the end of the day, this musical joins the list of recent shows across town (TOXIC AVENGER and SHE KILLS MONSTERS and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) that come very highly recommended.

UP NEXT: It’s back, but this time at Shea’s 710 Theatre. MusicalFare remounts last year’s sold-out hit, CHRISTMAS OVER THE TAVERN, in Buffalo’s downtown Theatre District, December 5 through the 22nd.

Then, back at the Mainstage in Amherst, MusicalFare continues its 30th Anniversary programming with COOKIN’ AT THE COOKERY, February 5 through March 8, 2020 celebrating the life of blues singer Albert Hunter with such songs as “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and “My Handy Man Ain’t Handy Anymore,” the latter being the double entendre for which Ms. Hunter was beloved. Victoria Perez directs and pianist George Caldwell (AIN’T MISBEHAVIN, SOPHISTICATED LADIES) leads an onstage musical quartet in the first WNY production of this show since its 2002 sold-out run at the Old Studio Arena Theatre.

Also note that there are a number of cabaret events (small seating, small ensemble, small stage, full-service bar) in the “Premier Center Cabaret.” Check the website for details.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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