Spreading Christmas Cheer
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When the Will Ferrell film Elf hit movie screens in 2003, it became an immediate hit and a new traditional film for a younger generation of holiday film fans. The guileless Buddy, who searches for his real father after growing up at the North Pole, was both touching and funny, providing a perfect vehicle for seasonal celebrations. With a big name cast — including Zooey Deschanel, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, James Caan, and Mary Steenburgen — Elf has now become a fixture in homes and on television as people look for a sweet escape from the shopping madness.
As has become the trend in recent years, hit films become fodder for Broadway musicals, and Elf has become one of the latest success stories from that practice and a touring natural for the holiday season. Debuting on Broadway in 2010, the musical version of Elf does differ slightly from the film. Gone is Papa Elf, the Newhart character who narrated the screen version, leaving Santa Claus to provide the narration for the stage production. And of course there’s the addition of about a dozen songs courtesy of the team Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin. The Civic Theatre, which last year staged the classic White Christmas for their holiday show, this year leaps decades forward to offer this still relatively new musical for the community.
This isn’t the first time Elf has been performed in Fort Wayne, with the production visiting last year courtesy of the Broadway at the Embassy series. That proved helpful when a possible collaboration was proposed in the planning of the Civic’s 2018-19 season, as Phillip Colglazier, executive and artistic director of the Civic, contacted Leslie Hormann, then executive and artistic director of Fort Wayne Youtheatre.
“Phillip and I talked before he knew that I was retiring and asked how the Civic and Youtheatre might collaborate,” Hormann said.
Although Hormann’s tenure as Youtheatre director ended this past summer, and she now spends part of the year in Florida, she remains active in the local arts community and happily agreed to direct Elf, her first big post-retirement project. Joining her is Heather Clossen, a faculty member of Youtheatre and Hormann’s “partner in crime.” They are joined by musical director Eunice Wadewitz, making for a formidable team of women at the helm. The first thing they did when agreeing to oversee this production was catch the Embassy performance last year.
“We loved it,” Hormann said. “It was adorable. Nice story, fast moving, infectious music. Plus it has that glamor of New York with the sensibility of a family story from the Midwest. It’s peddled as a children’s story, but it’s really just great family entertainment. And it’s fast paced. There are a million moving parts, and the choreography is delightful.”
Clossen, who has a large spreadsheet which covers each element of the show, gets to show off her chops with an eclectic array of dance numbers, borrowing some moves she used in her recent stint as choreographer and performer in the Three Rivers Music Theatre production of Cabaret.
“There are so many different styles within the show,” Clossen said. “A lot of variety, which is nice. We have the ‘elf-ography’ and some soft shoe, swing, ballroom and the finale. There are eight major dance numbers, but we’re also using choreography to move the desks around and there’s furniture choreography as we change sets.”
The team is also partnering with the University of Saint Francis to create the set through some graphic illustrations, ways to convey not only the holidays but the energy and excitement of New York City in December.
And of course, the cast brings together some fresh young faces along with seasoned veterans with parts ranging from youngsters to Santa himself.
“We have an old school cast, which I’m really excited about,” Hormann said. “Darren Harrison is back. He did a lot of shows in the ’80s but took some time off from doing theater. Jeff Moore is one of the top community actors around. He was recently in Frost/Nixon and is now playing our Santa. And my sister Jan Venderly is in it, and it’s been a couple years since she performed on stage. But we also have our Youtheatre kids because Heather and I raised those children!”
Tackling the pivotal role of Buddy is Jordan Gameon in a part that requires comedic timing, innocent charm, and effusive excitement.
“Jordan is so energetic in the lead role,” Hormann said. “And Buddy is on stage all the live-long day.”
Many of the audience favorites will be featured, Hormann promised, including the revolving door, the perfume spray, and the department store scene, with Macy’s now taking the place of Gimbels. (Although Gimbels went out of business in 1987, Elf paid a bit of homage 16 years later by including it in the plot.)
But there is one scene which didn’t make the transition to the musical.
“We don’t have the mailroom scene,” Clossen said. “But there will be a tribute to the mailroom scene.”
Hormann is enjoying the collaborative energy of working on Elf and encourages families to include it in their plans, made easier since the show runs before Thanksgiving kicks off the most wonderful — and busiest — time of the year.
“There really is something for everyone in this show,” she said. “It’s just a great evening of entertainment.”