By Steve Wong
I, for one, have never seen the movie Elf, starring comedian Will Ferrell, and I kind of hope I never do. It might somehow spoil the wonderful memory and feeling I got from seeing Elf: The Musical on stage at Greenwood Community Theatre.
Admittedly, I’ve seen bits and pieces of Elf as I have channel surfed. From my jaded perspective, all that I ever saw was an overgrown man in tights acting like a child during the holidays. Bah humbug! With limited research, The Grinch in me always thought, “That’s just silly.” But like The Grinch, I may have seen the error in my prejudicial opinion, thanks to Greenwood’s Artistic Director and star of the show, Ryan Hewitt, a grown man who’s not afraid to throw his hands in the air and wave them like he just doesn’t care. But he — and his character Buddy — do care, and they care greatly — in a childlike way. Like most of the characters in Elf: The Musical, I have come to realize that being silly and childlike during the Christmas holidays is absolutely appropriate and wonderful!
Seeing Elf: The Musical was my first experience with Greenwood Community Theatre, and I am happy to report that I found the venue historic and grand, the community overwhelmingly supportive, and the production first class with excellent acting, singing, dancing, and storytelling. As I told the young man next me in the seats, “Your community should be proud of your theatre. I see a lot of productions, and this is a really good one.” It was his first time seeing any stage production, but I don’t think it’ll be his last.
Elf: The Musical (as well as the movie) is about a 30-year-old man who was reared as one of Santa’s elves at the North Pole. As an orphaned baby, Buddy somehow made his way into Santa’s bag of toys and wound up north of everything. He grew up thinking he was an elf — just a really big elf who was not very good at elfing. Santa had to finally let the cat out of the bag: Buddy’s not an elf, he’s a human, and this Christmas, he should go find his father in New York City. Thus begins Buddy’s great adventure in the Big Apple to find his father and his place in human society. That is no easy task for a guy who eats breakfast spaghetti topped with maple syrup, who is clueless about romance, who just loves to make snow confetti out of shredded one-of-a-kind manuscripts, and, worst of all, who is always overjoyed with annoying Christmas spirit. Plus, his grumpy dad is a workaholic with a wife and another son.
From the get-go, Greenwood’s production is first class with top-notch lighting, sound, and staging — things not always found in small-city theatre. The joyful and large ensemble supports the main characters with very good singing and dancing. But it is Hewitt’s unabashed physicality, solid singing voice, and unfettered acting as an elf on the loose that marks this production as one of the season’s best in Upstate South Carolina.
Kudos to actresses Anna Lethco and Katie Whatley, who played Buddy’s love interest — Jovie — and his stepmother — Emily Hobbs. Both of these women are authentic in their acting as a lonely young woman in the big city looking for love and the sensible wife and mother trying to keep husband and sons on an even keel during unbelievable family revelations and holiday stress. In addition, they are excellent singers, who can be heard, understood, and enjoyed without even trying. David Sollish plays Buddy’s dad, Walter Hobbs, who eventually mans up in defense of his recently extended family — much to the audience’s collective delight.
Elf: The Musical is based on Elf the movie (2003) and opened on Broadway in 2010. Although the show has been revived, toured, and produced globally, it has never won any official awards. In 2010, it grossed more than $1 million during Thanksgiving weekend, making it third best-grossing show for that time period, behind Wicked and The Lion King. Regardless of what we critics say, Elf: The Musical is a people’s favorite, appealing to both the inner child and those too young for cynicism.
I strongly recommend Elf: The Musical by Greenwood Community Theatre. It can be enjoyed by the young and the old, the believers and the Scrooges. It is a story about accepting the ones we should love and embracing an innocence and joy that cannot be bought on Black Friday. It is priceless.