Elf The Musical at the Dominion Theatre – West End review
The festive favourite is back for a sparklejollytwinklejingley time!
It's amazing what a difference the right casting can make. When this Broadway musical adaptation of the beloved Will Ferrell movie had its UK premiere at the Dominion in 2015, it came across as an efficient but not particularly distinguished bit of festive fluff, designed primarily to wring every last Christmas shilling out of family audiences seeking entertainment that wasn't panto or another variant on Dickens's Scrooge story. This year's Elf is an altogether more engaging affair which seems finally to have discovered a vibrant theatricality of its own while simultaneously capturing more of the anarchically joyful spirit of the source material.
Central to this transformation is a rambunctious central performance from Simon Lipkin as Buddy, the supersized elf dispatched to Manhattan by Santa to find his real Dad. Usually a cherished (and scene-stealing) supporting performer (Avenue Q, Rock of Ages), Lipkin is here front and centre for a change, and he seizes the opportunity like a giant Christmas ham: this is an authentic triple threat star performance. Whether leading the entire company in a mass tap number, goofing about on rollerskates, gleefully shredding a rare manuscript to make snow, or almost speechless at the sight of leading lady Jovie (Georgina Castle, witty, vulnerable and genuinely lovely), this Buddy is magnetic, playful yet sincere, and completely adorable. Lipkin has an old-school Vaudevillian's ability to connect with the audience, a magnificent and rangy singing voice, killer comic timing, and the face of a well-meaning cherub permanently on the verge of getting everything very wrong.
He's all the more effective because he never once sends up Buddy's bewilderment and open-heartedness, instead playing them for real, with touching and hilarious results: his utter outrage at the fake Santa in Macy's toy department ("you sit on a throne of lies") feels authentic, as does his rather beautiful bond with his newly acquired, substantially smaller half-brother (a winningly confident, steel-lunged Logan Clark at the performance I saw), and his grief at being rejected by Tom Chambers's nicely judged businessman father. Ferrell was iconic on screen, but Lipkin proves every bit as delightful on stage. Hokey and sentimental the whole thing may be, but Lipkin and the entrancing Ms Castle defy you not to care.
The casting throughout is strong: Rebecca Lock, in thrilling voice, makes something funny and memorable out of Buddy's stepmom's transformation from brisk suburbanite to born-again Santa believer, and Nicholas Pound as the man himself puts over some groan-worthy jokes and shoe-horned-in contemporary references with aplomb. There's terrific work too from Kim Ismay as a sassy secretary and a gloriously funny Dermot Canavan as a permanently apoplectic toy store manager who resembles a cartoon made flesh. The ensemble singing and dancing packs a real punch and Liam Steel's dynamic new choreography represents another welcome upgrade from the show's first London outing.
Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, who were also responsible for fan favorite musicals The Prom and The Wedding Singer, have crafted a score that isn't necessarily all that memorable but provides the requisite brassy uplift of vintage showbiz combined with a sprinkling of festive magic, thanks in no small part to Doug Besterman's sparkling orchestrations. Bob Martin and Thomas Meehan's book does a capable job of ensuring that lovers of the movie won't be disappointed.
Philip Wm. McKinley's Broadway-slick new direction retains Tim Goodchild's original designs which are mostly pretty and effective, although some of the sets tend to look as though they were conceived for a smaller stage than the one the show is actually being performed on. I suspect few people will care, especially when the production concludes with an elaborate flight and snow sequence that provokes genuine "oohs" and "aahs" of amazement from the paying customers.
This is solid commercial family entertainment, attractively packaged, and elevated by a fine cast and a sensational central turn. I enjoyed it immensely. Originally a decent but forgettable night out, now it's a rather smashing one: this show sleighs (alright alright, I'll get my coat and see myself out…).