Just when you thought you couldn’t take yet another chirpy Holiday story, along comes something with enough zip, creativity and spark to send you rushing to decorate anything that even resembles a tree. That’s what The Happy Elf will do, with mistletoe, and snow flakes to spare.
This new collaboration between Adventure Theater and Montgomery College features the work of cool jazz composer Harry Connick Jr., of Nor’Leans fame, with claims to television, Broadway, and even a Hollywood picture show or two. For anyone who wondered how Connick would fare writing songs for a children’s show about an unstoppably perky elf hell bent on bringing joy and sunshine to the most curmudgeoned town on Santa’s naughty list, the wait is over. The show’s a smash filled with adorable characters, a great script, fun-filled choreography by Mark Minnick, and the most memorable songs this side of Jingle Bells.
Writers Lauren Gunderson and Andrew Fishman have targeted the entire family in this romp of fun, and Connick’s jazzy score ratchets up the adult appeal big time. Where else can you find a cool jazz quartet in a children’s program? Also, forget the old bland, twinkling images of Santa Land. This big guy’s workshop riffs on popular store logos, instantly recognizable but with added quirky twists, trust me, the set design alone by Beowulf Borritt is worth the trip. Plus, Santa himself along with Mrs. Claus, played with relish by Elliot Dash and Nova Y. Payton, have booming voices fit for the finest orchestra halls, and bring in the noise and the funk with music director Darius Smith. No one plays down to children in this production (check out the quick run-in with Gnome-Land Security. Yes, way!) Instead, the designers appreciate that youngsters are more sophisticated than we give them credit for. They’ll get it, and even if they don’t, their parents will be laughing so hard that the kids will join in.
The appropriately coolest named elf, Eubie, (don’t you just love it already?) takes it upon himself to convert a town of mean-spirited sad-sacks, from Bluesville, uh-huh, into fun-loving souls who appreciate the spirit of Christmas. Played with mega-watt smiles and non-stop energy, the irrepressible Clint Johnson as Eubie has the elfin charm of the real deal, who can light up a room with a goofy grin, because he comes across as genuine and heartfelt, as real as the sunshine that grazes over the dark dreary little “Poop Hole” (yep, I kid you not) of a town.
Eubie and his sidekicks, played nicely by Jobari Parker-Namdar and Tina Ghandchilar, set on an impossible journey of wonder. He’s also got a neat nemesis played by Tony Award winner Michael Rupert who sees Eubie’s antics as insubordinate and tries to thwart him at every turn.
In a clever twist in the script, Eubie’s original intention of cheering up the droopy town was to draw enough attention and acclaim to himself to assure a coveted place on Santa’s Christmas sleigh ride of a lifetime. Considering that the mean spirited Bluesville makes Potter’s Place from “It’s a Wonderful Life” look cheery, that would be no small feat. Valerie Issembert portrays Molly, the town bully as fiendishly mean, but with glimpses of hopelessness in an endearing performance. Whisking back and forth between Santa Land and Bluesville via sparkles of magic dust (and neat lighting design by Andrew R. Cissna) Eubie and his chums stumble into and out of mishaps and disappointments while learning the true meanings of friendship, care, and commitment, including Santa’s admonition that happiness is not just a smile, but interactions with others to make the world a better place.
In addition to the best direction this side of Broadway by Tony Award winning John Rando, there’s the toe-tapping music with the characteristic Harry Connick Jr swing. The songs are fresh and original while the music sways and bee-bops along in jazzy riffs. The heartfelt ballads and fun-filled numbers such as “Two Scoops of Christmas,” and “We Got Three” showcase the talented cast.
That families lined up to visit with Santa, purchase the CD “Harry for the Holidays”, and little elf doll after the show was a sign of how much they wanted to keep the spirit of the show close at hand. This is definitely a treat to share per Santa’s lesson about happiness and sharing interactions to make the world a better place, and all. Just trying to stack the deck to be included on the nice instead of naughty list, and assure a jolly good time for all jamming with The Happy Elf.
The Happy Elf
Based on the book by Lauren Gunderson and Andrew Fishman
Music and Lyrics by Harry Connick, Jr
Directed by John Rando
Produced by Adventure Theatre and Montgomery College
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
THE HAPPY ELF
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post