Holiday favorite ‘Elf’ returns to Civic

By John Lyle Belden

Just two years ago (what seems a lifetime now), the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre had one of their biggest-ever hits with the musical “Elf,” based on the 2003 Wil Farrell film that is already a beloved Christmas classic.

And as live theatre has returned around central Indiana, so, too, has Buddy and his friends. And – a holiday miracle? – this production is just as wonderful as it was before.

This presents the reviewer with a problem. How do I say practically the same thing I wrote in 2019?

Like this — To save you the click and page-load of a link to the previous review, the following is the same text that still applies, with updated cast and info as needed:

The book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin, with songs by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, allows Buddy the Elf to escape the shadow of Ferrell’s unique talent to make him his own wonderful character — portrayed happily here by Matt Bays. 

As in the original story, Buddy is a human who, as a baby, crawled into Santa’s sack, unseen until the end of the journey. Finding that the boy’s single mother had died, Santa Claus (Parrish Williams) lets him be raised by the elves, allowing Buddy to think he was one of them. 

The truth is inevitably revealed, and Buddy travels to find his biological father — who doesn’t know he exists — in New York City. The dad, Walter (Jack Tanselle), is a workaholic executive at a publishing house of children’s books who is rough on coworkers like good-natured Deb (Nina Stilabower) and neglectful of wife Emily (Carrie Neal) as well as son Michael (Dylan Aquaviva). Naturally, Walter doesn’t believe this strange man in elvish tights is his son, so has him sent away. Since Buddy claims to be from the North Pole, he is dropped off at the next-best thing — Macy’s. There he ends up among the store’s Santa’s helpers, where he falls in love with fellow “elf” Jovie (Emily Bohannon). 

From there, the story is Buddy’s struggle for acceptance and belonging, along with a chance to save Christmas for his father’s family, and the whole world — when Santa is stranded in Central Park, his sleigh too low on the Christmas Spirit that fuels it (PETA nixed his reindeer a while ago). Other notable roles include Jonathan Studdard as the stressed-out Macy’s Manager, Dick Davis and Kelsey VanVoorst as hapless children’s book writers, and Jeff Angel as Mr. Greenway, the curmudgeonly owner of the publishing company, who wants a new hit Christmas story from Walter — or else!

The feel of the show throughout is best described by one of its song titles: “Sparklejollytwinklejingley.” The mood is perpetually sweet, even when characters aren’t “Happy All The Time.” And even when they feel that “Nobody Cares,” there’s a fun dance break. 

Directed by Michael J. Lasley and Anne Beck with choreography by Beck and musical direction by Brent Marty, this is a magical ensemble effort. Seeing it on a matinee with an audience of mostly children, I noticed they were all entranced and swept up in the spirit of it all. 

Just as sweet and special as spaghetti with syrup, “Elf” is yet another holiday must-see in central Indiana, playing through Dec. 24 at the Tarkington theater in the Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Carmel, right next to the Christkindlmarkt. (Arrive early for hope of parking.) See www.civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org for info and tickets.

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