CEDAR RAPIDS — Even the grinchiest Scrooges will leave “Elf the Musical” feeling all “sparklejollytwinklejingley.”
The 2010 play springing from the 2003 film spreads Christmas cheer by singing loud for all to hear, onstage at Theatre Cedar Rapids through Dec. 16.
The real magic during Thursday’s final dress rehearsal was hearing childlike gasps when just a touch of glistening snow fell gently over the audience. That wonder continued through the end of the show, from Santa’s crash-landing in New York’s Central Park and right back to the North Pole.
The musical retains the movie’s charm and many of the iconic phrases, like “Buddy the Elf, what’s your favorite color?” But it also gives the movie’s snow globe a bit of a shake to introduce some new moments, new lines, new characters and of course, lots of new snazzy, jazzy music rockin’ around the Christmas tree.
However, not every moment is merry and bright in Buddy’s world.
As a baby, Buddy (DJ Kohl) crawls out of his orphanage crib and into Santa’s bag. He’s accidentally toted back to the North Pole, where the smitten elves decide raise him as one of their own. It’s not long until he towers over them and they overshadow his slowpoke toy-making skills.
Thirty years later, he’s crushed to find out he’s really a human. Since he no longer feels like he belongs at Christmastown, Santa (Rick Titus) encourages Buddy to head south to find his human father, Walter Hobbs (Greg Brown), an overworked children’s book editor who toils at the Empire State Building.
Walter’s a hard-sell, who isn’t buying Buddy’s wild tale. That’s a sentiment rippling through everyone else Buddy meets and greets with a great big hug. He stumbles and bumbles his way through this strange new world, perplexed at the way humans have lost the Christmas spirit. No wonder Santa’s sleigh has been sputtering, since it’s now powered by Christmas spirit instead of reindeer muscle.
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Buddy excels at sniffing out a fake Santa who smells like beef and cheese, and all the other holiday shams that threaten the way of life he so lovingly embraces. But all of his youthful exuberance soon alienates his father, his potential new girlfriend (Emily Palmer), and others, until he finds himself homeless and wandering the streets in despair.
Kohl travels this emotional roller coaster beautifully, filling the audience with glee at his larger-than-life wonderment, then breaking hearts when his spirit begins to sag.
Joni Sackett’s costume design offers little glimmers of hope, as Walter’s downtrodden co-workers who live in a drab world wrapped in black, white and gray begin to add pops of color to their clothes.
Director Joe Link also designed the scenery, cleverly introduced as a pop-up book to mirror the book Santa sits down to read to the audience. All of the surfaces are white, so S. Benjamin Farrar’s lighting designs can cast washes of blue, red and green on the stage, along with dancing snowflakes, twirling green globes and city lights. And just when the top of the show is looking a little blah, the elves pop onto the scene with the most fanciful costumes since the Munchkins greeted Dorothy in Oz. The kids are absolutely adorable.
Link’s strong suit is imagination, and he lets Kohl’s run deliciously wild.
Music director Benjamin Schmidt runs a tight ship in the orchestra pit, knowing when to pull back to let the lyrics shine through and when to let the brass propel the show’s jingling jazz.
Titus plays Santa with a wink of his eye, a twist of his head and some one-liners that will sail over kids’ heads, but give the adults a giggle or guffaw. Little dashes of salt are sprinkled here and there, in the way cartoons of the ’60s and ’70s gave a nod to grown-up viewers.
Tickets are being snapped up quickly enough that several Thursday shows have been added. If you’re going to the show, head to your seats early enough to hear David Kelzenberg make the Rhinestone Barton theater organ sing in grand holiday style.
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IF YOU GO
• What: “Elf the Musical”
• Where: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE
• When: To Dec. 16; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
• Tickets: $22 student to $50 adult; TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org
• Extra: ALS interpreted performance 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8; call (319) 366-8591 for seats in this section