There’s a lot of glitz and glitter on stage at the Bangor Opera House this holiday season. Even in the dark, the proscenium sparkles with giant, glittering snowflakes and candy canes.
On stage, giant snow banks shimmer and shine, Santa’s sleigh is ready to roll and Buddy the Elf glows with holiday cheer in Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “Elf the Musical,” first performed on Broadway in 2010.
Underneath all that shiny stuff is a predictable, shallow, schmaltzy script by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin with mostly dull music and lyrics by Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar.
The show is based on the 2003 movie, “Elf,” starring Will Ferrell. It tells the story of Buddy the Elf, who was born in New York City but raised at the North Pole. He heads south to find his father and enough Christmas spirit to fuel Santa’s sleigh after PETA makes it impossible for reindeer to work on Christmas Eve.
Director and choreographer Ethan Paulini mounts a fine production that squeezes every ounce of trite sentimentality out of the show. Paulini had much better material to work with in his previous outings with PTC — “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” and “The Full Monty.” He uses the cast’s energy well in “Elf the Musical” and the Dec. 7 audience, for the most part, loved it.
In addition to the sets and costumes, designed by Moriah and Isabel Curley-Clay, and Scout Hough’s lighting, the big production numbers, complete with tap dancing, are a highlight of the show.
Paulini along with Dance Captain A.J. Mooney, who also has a role in the show, have done something few others have accomplished on the PTC stage: turned the performers into dancers. The best numbers in the show are “Sparklejollytwinklejingley,” “Nobody Cares About Santa” and “The Story of Buddy,” in which the actors perform complicated dance choreography beautifully, sometimes in tap shoes.
Often the biggest deficit in musicals with big production numbers in theater companies in Bangor and beyond is the dancing. The precision and acumen with which the actors dance in “Elf the Musical” nearly overcomes the mediocrity of the script.
As for the cast, it is top notch and worthy of the technical magic that surrounds it. Ira Kramer as the sweet, naive, oversized elf Buddy gives a schmaltzy, exuberant performance. As Santa, Ben Layman sucessly blends gruffness with jolliness to create a lovable figure.
As experienced and professional as these two actors and the rest of the cast are, multi-talented Orono High School senior Nathan Manaker steals the show right out from under them. Manaker, as Buddy’s half-brother Michael Hobbs, gives an honest and sincere performance devoid of all the glitter and glitz that embody “Elf the Musical.” He also exudes an infectious energy that rolls off the stage and over the audience. Manaker’s Michael gives the show a soul.
The band, with Larrance Fingerhut on the keyboard, Phil Kell on bass, Brian Nadeau on trumpet, Cliff Guthrie on woodwinds and Tom Libby on percussion and drums milk every jazzy ounce of heart out of the score. As a group, they make the music sound better than it actually is.
I admit that years working in retail turned me into a Grinch and it takes a lot to overcome my reluctance to embrace Christmas shows just because it’s that time of year. PTC’s productions over the last three years have won me over though. But not this year. “Elf the Musical” doesn’t have the charm of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” the heart of “Oliver” or the wit of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.” Ironically, “Elf the Musical” is everything that PTC’s other holiday show, “The Santaland Diaries,” criticizes and satirizes.
“Elf the Musical” runs through Dec. 30 at the Bangor Opera House, 131, Main St. but is sold out. “The Santaland Diaries” will be performed through Dec. 30 at the Bangor Arts Exchange, 193 Exchange St. For tickets, call 942-3333 or visit penobscottheatre.org.