While I'm not a die-hard fan of the 2003 Will Ferrell-in-tights holiday film Elf, I enjoyed it enough to notice all the times the stage musical version produced by NC Theatre strained to recreate a big laugh line from the film, or introduced some new element to the plot that didn't click. The musical overall is like a beautifully wrapped gift with a pair of socks inside: It's lovely to look at, but ultimately forgettable.
As the Santa-raised elf-man Buddy, Will Blum from Broadway's The Book of Mormon affects a high, childlike voice that sometimes sounds more like Michael Jackson than a joyous Christmas spirit. It doesn't help that the production depicts the elves in Santa's workshop as full-sized actors walking around on their knees. Obviously, the CGI used in the film to depict tiny humans alongside the immense Ferrell doesn't work on stage, but weren't any actors of appropriate size available? The effect is more unsettling than whimsical.
Elsewhere, the scene from the original with Peter Dinklage's high-strung author is cut for a lame joke about a manuscript and a paper shredder. It's not a matter of the original material being irreplaceable, but the new scenes are so forgettable as to make the difference more glaring.
In the film version of Elf, you have a whimsical character from a Christmas movie wandering into a movie-friendly but still not magical New York City, where his innocence and cheer contrast with the world-wary humans. The problem with adapting this to a musical is that when everyone is singing and dancing all the time, the contrast doesn't stand out as much. What remains is a selection of labored song-and-dance numbers (one brief song involves a DNA test). It's hard to tell whether it was due to technical problems or a lack of vocal range, but few of the musical songs projected much energy; many of the lyrics were drowned out by the orchestra, which was in fine form.
The sets, with scenic design by Christine Peters, upstage most of the actors in Elf. There are constant transitions between a bustling North Pole, a glittering Macy's Christmas display and plenty of New York scenery. The elaborate sets often feel like overcompensation for a thin script, as do the colorful costumes by Gregg Barnes. There's all manner of jokes about iPads, TiVo and even a localized quip about ECU, but there's relatively little wit in the overall book.
The best work comes from bit players such as Kevyn Morrow, who does some fancy footwork as a cynical store manager, and Lanene Charters as a brassy secretary. (She's more memorable than the actual love interest, Jovie, whose drab personality Lindsay Nicole Chambers can't overcome.)
Elf suffers from the same problem as many other film-to-stage adaptations: All the effort to make the live experience seem as spectacular as a big-budget movie often results in such elements as good dialogue and memorable characters being shuttered. It's not without its charm, and younger theatergoers likely will enjoy the scenery. But there's nothing as funny as Will Ferrell recoiling in fear from a jack-in-the-box popping in his face from the original movie. You can build all the giant sets you want, but it's still hard to top the sight of that man in tights.
Now, if someone wanted to do a musical version of Love Actually...