The movie “Elf” is a sweet little holiday heart-tug. So is the musical taken from the movie and now on the Walnut Street Theatre’s main stage, where it’s joyful and handsomely designed and – dare I write it? – cute.
“Elf,” whose theatrical version sticks closely to the movie but adds a facile musical score by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, is also fairly pat stuff, wrapping up everything neatly, rapidly — and unrealistically, even for a holiday fantasy. You’d have to be a hidebound curmudgeon, though, to dismiss “Elf” as light-headed, which is hardly an indictment for a Christmas show.
In fact, I’m an unrepentant fan of “Elf,” a show that almost convinces you that singing a Christmas song will empower the spirit of the holiday and also Santa’s sleigh. I saw “Elf” on Broadway in 2010, and when it returned two years later with a different lead player, I saw it again. Each time it made me smile throughout, just as it does at the Walnut, this fantasy about a human baby who creeps from an orphanage into Santa’s bag.
He’s raised at the North Pole as an elf until he grows human-size and too awkward to be the real thing. (The real thing is a funny idea when you’re considering elves, but that’s movies and the theater for you.)
Buddy, as the non-elf elf is called, overhears some dish that he’s human and Santa owns up to him – and sends him to Earth, elf suit and all, to meet up with his dad in New York. Dad takes one look and does not say ho-ho-ho.
The charm of this show, with a book by Thomas Meehan (co-writer of “Hairspray,” “The Producers” and many others) and Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) comes partly from the easy way it mocks the myth it builds on. Santa can’t ride here with reindeers – PETA, the animal rights organization, has put an end to that. Santa himself (a wonderful turn by Bill Van Horn) narrates the stage version, and he’s tossed out that bulky gift list in favor of an iPad. And all those department-store imitations of him get together on Christmas Eve to complain about the kids whose wishes they’ve been entertaining – “they just sit on your lap and text each other!”
Speaking of those St. Nicks, there’s no holiday entertainment quite like watching 11 of them tap dance and end up in a chorus line – one of several show-stoppers in “Elf,” done heartily at the Walnut in choreography by Marc Robin, who also zaps the show with his sprightly direction. The Walnut’s Douglass G. Lutz is the music and vocal director, commanding a fine orchestra.
Buddy the Elf is played by Christopher Sutton, the actor who fired up the Walnut’s version of “The Buddy Holly Story” two seasons back in the title role. Sutton is an endearing stage presence in any case, and here, with a roundish face and a big and toothy smile, he’s absolutely impish; he turns the elf’s naiveté into an asset. He also sets a childlike tone that gives this particular rendition of “Elf” a cartoonish aspect just right for such a skewered take on an iconic fable. (Oops, I hope you didn’t still believe in … well, too late.)
Charles Pistone fits easily into the role of a dad who has no time for Christmas and certainly none for Buddy, and Kristine Fraelich is a welcome beacon of reason as his put-upon wife. When I saw the show Wednesday, on opening night, the talented J.D. Triolo played their school-age son; he alternates in the role with Tyler Hentz. Jovie, who becomes Buddy’s love interest, is played sweetly by Kate Fahrner, a gutsy-voiced veteran of several Walnut shows, and Fran Prisco goofily manages Macy’s version of a North Pole.
I’d be remiss not to mention the two bright ensembles who fill out the stage — both the adult actors who play many incidental roles (plus the non-incidental elves) and a team of youngsters who pretty much play themselves.
Colleen Grady had obvious fun with all those elf costumes, but maybe not as much as Robert Andrew Kovach, who wraps the production in large frames of gift-paper and painted bows that line the sides of the stage and come down from its ceiling. Just like I wrote, cute. In the nice meaning of that word.
“Elf” runs through Jan. 5 on the main stage of Walnut Street Theatre, Ninth and Walnut Streets. 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.