A Sparklejollytwinklejingley Show!

THEREP_ELF (no credits)-page-001The holidays are here. And if you need to get into the Christmas spirit, I suggest you buy, beg or bargain to get a ticket to see Buddy the Elf and his friends in the musical Elf which is playing at the Arkansas Rep through January 4.

This frothy, fun, friendly show has but one aim – to entertain.  And how it does succeed.

With a smart, witty, heart-filled book by Tony winners Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers, Hairspray) and Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone, TV’s “Slings & Arrows”), the story works on several different levels. (Incidentally, Meehan takes a swipe at his other Christmas-NYC set musical Annie with a joke, while Martin seems to be aping The Drowsy Chaperone by having the story open with a man in a chair). The score by Tony nominees Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar (The Wedding Singer) ranges from toe-tapping to heartstring-pulling.

Elf is, of course, based upon the eponymously named film.  Disclaimer – I’ve not seen the movie.  I do not get Will Ferrell’s appeal, so steer clear of most movies starring him.  But love of the movie is not necessary to enjoy the stage musical. The book, score, cast and production values take the audience on a wild sleigh ride of holiday fun regardless of familiarity with the source material.

As Buddy the Elf, Ethan Paulini is a chief reason for the show’s appeal. He is rarely off stage, and somehow manages to keep a high level of energy throughout. His ebullient Buddy is both naïve and knowing. Whether singing, dancing or acting, he never overplays the part or goes for cheap laughs.  Through his performance, one believes that he really does charm his way into everyone’s hearts regardless of their age or gender.

As the object of Buddy’s affection, it is a joy to watch Alyssa Gorgone’s Jovie transform from guarded to glowing.  She deftly handled her songs and dances.  Gorgone and Paulini have a nice chemistry together as the court each other.

David Hess moves from blustery to boasting in his portrayal of Buddy’s dad.  Anna Lise Jensen is a delight as his long-suffering wife whose struggle to find her own place mirror’s Buddy’s quest.  As Buddy’s younger half-brother Price Clark is a joy to watch. He is neither precocious nor cloying. Instead, he is a believable kid who is concerned about his parents and is thrilled to have a new brother.

Tessa Faye stops the show as Deb the secretary as she comically aids Buddy and leads the office in a rousing production number. Kyron Turner and Tanner Wilson make the most of their scenes as harried employees hoping for a holiday miracle. J. B. Adams bookends the show as an avuncular, folksy Santa Claus.

From beleaguered New Yorkers to bored Macy’s elves to depressed Santas, the ensemble fill the stage with delightful characters. Hannah Eakin, Allison Stearns, Jason Samuel, Jimmy Kieffer, Anthony Bryant, Chris McNiff, Jack Doyle, Samantha Harrington, Tatiana H. Green, Marisa Kirby, Eric Mann, Kennedy Sample and Mary Katelin Ward have enough vigor, vim and verve to make the cast seem much larger than it actually is.

The elves are played by the younger members of the cast. These kids are having fun – and why not? They get to spend the show in two of the most magical settings imaginable: The North Pole and New York City at Christmas.  They very ably perform their production numbers and create memorable characters without stealing focus from Buddy and Santa.  Addison Dowdy, Gunner Gardner, Reagan Hodson, Anna Beth Jeane, Ethan Marbaise, Max McCurdy, Danny Phillips, Grace Pitts, Corbin Pitts, Niall Prochazka, Marisol Sela, and Madison Stolzer were welcome additions to the production.  Most of these performers are seasoned veterans of the Rep’s Summer Musical Theatre Intensive. They show that their talent works in the wintertime too.

Nicole Capri directed Elf with a light, comic touch. She neither glosses over nor smothers the audience with the heart in the show, she trusted her performers and the story to bring it out.  She keeps the show moving at a brisk pace while allowing for enough quiet moments that it does not seem frantic.  Marisa Kirby’s creative, crowd-pleasing choreography put the actors through their paces.  Together Capri and Kirby fashioned production numbers which allowed each performer to stand out as an individual character while still part of a seamless ensemble.

Elf’s magical world was ably served by Shelly Hall’s colorful costumes, Dan Kimble’s lighting, Allan Branson’s sound and Lynda J. Kwallek’s props.  One of the joys of the show is undoubtedly the songs. Credit for that goes largely to Mark Binns, the show’s musical director.  He leads the orchestra as they play the peppy, tuneful score. He also deserves credit for helping the actors maximize their sounds as they perform the songs while executing Kirby’s inventive choreography.

Though based on a 2000s movie, Elf is really a throwback to 1950s and 1960s workplace musicals. There are the buffoonly bullying boss, the comic-relief secretary, the dancing office boys and office girls, the disconnected wife and kids, and, of course, the outsider hero who saves the day and wins the heart of the leading lady. The show also offers dancing Santas, prancing elves, and a travelogue’s worth of New York City settings.

Elf doesn’t ask the audience to think too hard or to get wrapped up in cloying sentimentality. It merely wants to entertain as it allows the audience an escape from daily strife.

No matter your holiday of choice at this time of the year, the Rep is giving audiences a present with Elf!

ELF takes stage at Arkansas Rep through January 4

THEREP_ELF (no credits)-page-001The Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s production of the holiday musical Elf opens tonight for a run through January 4.

Adapted by Thomas Meehan (The Producers) and Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone) from the popular 2003 film starring Will Ferrell, with a score by Tony®-nominated songwriting team of Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin (The Wedding Singer), Elf turns one of Hollywood’s most beloved holiday hits into a hilarious and heartwarming musical that towers above the rest.

When a young orphan who mistakenly crawls into Santa’s bag of gifts is raised in the North Pole, unaware that he is actually a human, his enormous size and poor toy-making abilities eventually cause him to face the truth. As he embarks on a journey to New York City to find his birth father and discover his true identity, Buddy strives to win over his new family and help New York remember the true meaning of Christmas.

The cast is led by Rep veteran Ethan Paulini as Buddy.  Others in the cast include J. B. Adams, Price Clark, Jack Doyle, Tessa Faye, Alyssa Gorgone, David Hess, Anna Lise Jensen, Jason Samuel, Anthony D. Bryant, Hannah Eakin, Samantha L. Harrington, Jimmy Kieffer, Marisa Kirby, Eric Mann, Chris McNiff, Allison Stearns, Kyron Turner, Tanner Ray Wilson, Tatiana H. Green, Kennedy Sample and Mary Katelin Ward.  The elves are played by Addison Rae Dowdy, Gunner Gardner, Reagan Hodson, Anna Beth Jeane, Ethan Marbaise, Max McCurdy, Danny Phillips, Corbin Pitts, Grace Pitts, Niall Prochazka, Marisol Sela and Madison Stolzer.

The creative team includes director Nicole Capri, music director Mark Binns, choreographer Marisa Kirby, costume designer Shelly Hall, sound designer Allan Branson, prop designer Lynda J. Kwallek and lighting designer Dan Kimble.

Thrills and Chills, Fun and Dysfunction all part of Arkansas Rep 2014-2015 season

ark rep

A large and dysfunctional family, a flying nanny, a tall elf, a menacing thief, a post-Civil War trio and a Rock & Roll pioneer await audiences at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s 39th season in 2014-2015.

“The stories we’ll tell speak to the power of live theatre,” says Robert Hupp, Producing Artistic Director at Arkansas Repertory Theatre. “It’s a season of entertainment, for sure, but it’s also a season of firsts for The Rep and our audience: The new season features engaging plays and musicals, many brought to life for the very first time in our state, all created in our intimate home on Main Street. Three popular and crowd pleasing, over the top musicals complement three amazing plays that embody the best our art form.”

The season kicks off with a regional theatre premiere of a Tony winning Best Musical. Memphis will run from September 5-28. It features a Tony-winning tuneful score by David Bryan which melds rock, blues, gospel and soul. The Tony-winning book is by Joe DiPietro.

“When I first saw Memphis on Broadway, I couldn’t wait for the day we could tell this story on our stage,” says Hupp. “Imagine how pleased I was when the producers contacted us about creating one of the first regional theatre productions of Memphis in the country. It’s a story we all know; it’s the telling of it that will get you on your feet: brash and exciting with music and dancing that will reach and grab you from start to finish.”

Next up, is Frederick Knott’s classic thriller Wait until Dark from October 24 through November 9. Though perhaps best known for the film version starring Audrey Hepburn, it first starred Lee Remick on Broadway (earning her a Tony nomination).

A sinister con man and two ex-convicts are about to meet their match. They have traced the location of a mysterious doll to the Greenwich Village apartment of Sam Hendrix and his wife, Susy. With murder afoot, a deadly game of cat and mouse ensues, as Susy discovers the only way to play fair is to play by her rules.

“It’s been years since we’ve had a thriller in our line-up,” says Hupp. “This retro suspense classic still packs a punch, still brings a gasp, still gets you clutching the arm of the person sitting beside you. Wait Until Dark is scary fun.”

A recent addition to the canon of holiday classic films has been turned into a musical. At the holiday season, Elf will be on stage from December 5 through the 28th. With a book by Tony winners Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers) and Bob Martin (The Driwsy Chaperone) and a score by Tony®-nominated songwriting team of Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin (The Wedding Singer), Elf turns one of Hollywood’s most beloved holiday hits into a hilarious and heartwarming musical that towers above the rest.

“Funny and touching, Elf is a musical with a big heart that is just perfect for families this holiday season,” says Hupp.

The year 2015 marks the sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War. The Rep kicks off 2015 with Matthew Lopez’s award winning play The Whipping Man from January 23 through February 8.

An extraordinary tale of loyalty, deceit and deliverance, The Whipping Man opened off-Broadway in 2011 to critical acclaim, winning the 2011 John Gassner New Play Award from the NY Outer Critics Circle and becoming one of the most produced plays in the country.

On Passover, 1865, the Civil War has just ended and the annual celebration of freedom from bondage is being observed in Jewish homes across the country. A Jewish confederate officer returns from the war, badly wounded, to find his family missing and only two former slaves remaining. As the three wait for the family’s return, they wrestle with their shared past as master and slave, digging up long-buried family secrets as well as new ones.

“Make The Whipping Man a new discovery. It will challenge your assumptions about our history, and the plot twists and turns will keep you on the edge of your seat,” says Hupp. “You’ll want to see why The Whipping Man has established itself as one of the most produced plays in the country.”

Everyone’s favorite British nanny will arrive at the Rep as Mary Poppins takes the stage from March 6 through April 5. With songs by the Academy Award-winning Sherman Brothers (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Jungle Book) and additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe it has a book by Oscar winner Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey, Gosford Park). Disney’s stage musical Mary Poppins is based on the similarly titled series of children’s books by P. L. Travers and the 1964 Disney film.

The Broadway production opened in November 2006 and received nominations for seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It won a Tony Award, a Theatre World Award and two Drama Desk Awards. The Broadway production ran formover 2600 performances.

“Bringing Mary Poppins to the stage for the first time for Central Arkansas audiences is a special thrill,” says Hupp. “Like most of us, Mary Poppins has been a part of my life since I was a kid; we all remember the first time we met her and, even today, how many times do we wish someone would drift in from the sky to set everything right? Mary Poppins will be one of the biggest musicals we’ve ever undertaken, and will be a special treat in our intimate theatre.”

The dysfunctional family to end all dysfunctional families will conclude the Rep’s season when the Pulitzer and Tony winning August: Osage County runs from June 5 through 21, 2015.

One of the most bracing and critically acclaimed plays in recent Broadway history, August: Osage County is a darkly comedic portrait of an extended family coming apart and trying to hold itself together. Written by Tracy Letts, August: Osage County was the recipient of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It won five 2008 Tony Awards, including Best Play, three 2008 Drama Desk Awards including Outstanding Play, the 2008 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play, the 2008 Drama League Award for Distinguished Production of a Play and the 2008 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Broadway Play.

“In my opinion, August: Osage County is the best play written in the last ten years,” says Hupp. “We’ve had the rights for a few years but feel we’re now ready to bring this dynamic, funny and powerful new play to life for our audience. Maybe you saw the movie, but you need to meet this family at The Rep.”

In between Mary Poppins and August: Osage County, the stage at the Rep will feature both performances by Ballet Arkansas as well as the Rep’s educational program’s Project Élan.