Monday, November 19, 2007

The Happy Elf (The SOB Review)

The Happy Elf (The SOB Review) - The Coterie Theatre, Kansas City, MO

** (out of ****)

If the kids in New York City can't experience The Grinch, there's always Kansas City, home to the world premiere of The Happy Elf.

Or maybe not. At least not in its current form.

What started as a snappy little ditty about an overly enthusiatic sprite back in 2003 -- a tune Harry Connick, Jr. wrote for his "Harry For The Holidays" CD -- evolved two years later into a 45-minute animated television special.

Fast forward another couple years, and The Happy Elf has now morphed into an hour-long family-oriented holiday stage show done to a jazz beat. The Happy Elf serves up a pleasant enough diversion with two scoops of holiday cheer, but it seriously lacks any real enchantment or cohesive strength of an enduring classic that can appeal to all ages.

For my money, the best shows aimed at children offer plenty of magic along with enough winks and nods to keep adults content. And while Andrew Fishman's book certainly tries to straddle that magical middle ground, it tends to do so on the cheap in the spellbinding department. All the adults get are lame jokes about Ben Affleck's recent track record in film or references to North Star Bucks Coffee and Gnomeland Security. It's too little and not nearly often enough.

Certainly it must come as a bit of a surprise that Santa's happiest elf Eubie (an earnest K.C. Comeaux) could possibly be demoted twice. Is there no justice at the North Pole??

After overzealously polishing the little faces off the newly produced dolls and annoying practically everyone including Santa himself, Eubie is reassigned to wade through the jolly man's stack of who's been naughty and nice. After discovering no nice persons inhabit the entire town of Bluesville, he takes it upon himself to venture there courtesy of his magic hat in hopes of converting the naughty.

Once there, he sees the miserable existence of its townspeople. With amazingly little effort, Eubie manages to gain the trust of Molly, a precocious wise-cracking little girl (Daria LeGrand, an incredibly talented 12 year old , is by far the best part about the production). While he's just on the verge of winning Molly over to the nice side, Eubie's whisked back to the North Pole and summarily demoted yet again.

This time he's grounded when he's required to turn over his magic hat and clean up Santa's workshop. Thanks to his friendship with fellow elves Gilda (Jessalyn Kincaid) and Ham (Michael Dragen), Eubie accomplishes the job -- running counter to Santa's orders -- and is summarily rewarded as St. Nick's personal helper on Christmas night flight. (What ever happened to consequences for bad behavior, anyway?!)

Despite the promise in the book, it never feels fully realized. It's not for lack of trying on director Jeff Church's part.

Fortunately, Connick's jazzy song stylings add an appropriate mix of holiday bounce and blues to the proceedings -- each tune is delivered with conviction by the hardworking, if at times overlabored, cast. Yet, it should also be noted that the underlying music tends to sound more like Vince Guaraldi's familiar score to "A Charlie Brown Christmas" than anything fresh or new.

The true test is whether the little kids enjoyed what they saw. Surprisingly, at my performance, while most of these Kansas City kids paid polite if unresponsive attention, more than a handful became, well, more than a handful ready to bail before the hour was even up.

If only there had been a just a little more magic, there could have been an audience full of happy elves.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.

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