Pioneer Theatre’s “Elf” provides a comical sugar rush to get through the holidays

Sat Dec 04, 2021 at 12:46 pm
Max Chernin and Antoinette Comer star in Elf at Pioneer Theatre Company. Photo: PTC

Are you feeling a little low on Christmas cheer after another year of pandemic and strife? Then Pioneer Theatre Company’s Elf The Musical could be the show for you.

Adapted from the 2003 Will Ferrell film by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin (book), Matthew Sklar (music) and Chad Beguelin (lyrics), Elf succeeds in balancing a contemporary sensibility with the peppy song-and-dance energy of classic musical theater. Pioneer’s eye-catching production, which opened Friday, is buoyed by a strong and enthusiastic cast.

Set in an alternative present day where TikTok exists but the coronavirus pandemic apparently doesn’t, Elf is the story of Buddy, a 30-year-old man coping with the life-shattering news that the elves who raised him are not his biological family. Buddy heads to New York City to find his father and revive the Christmas spirit that powers Santa Claus’s sleigh.

His new family and co-workers are flummoxed at first, but it isn’t long before his wide-eyed charm wins them—and the audience—over.

The score includes a dozen original songs, most of them catchy and upbeat. The action slows down briefly in the middle of each act, first as Buddy’s stepmother and brother discover that the gifts they want most don’t come from a store—then as his new girlfriend wonders how she got involved with this zany man. Otherwise, it’s “SparkleJollyTwinkleJingley” all the time, with a high-energy dance break around every corner.

Max Chernin inhabits the title role completely. He’s a gold-and-green-wrapped bundle of sweetness and comic verve, with a voice that easily meets the demands of the score and a humanity that keeps Buddy from becoming cloying. 

Antoinette Comer plays Jovie, the department-store elf who is initially perplexed by Buddy but eventually strikes up a romance with him. Comer makes the entire arc believable, and her “Never Fall in Love (With an Elf)” soars.

Two supporting actors nearly steal the show.

Carlita Victoria is utterly irresistible as the secretary Deb with a mischievous streak and a firecracker energy that rivals that of Buddy. And in the role of Buddy’s half-brother, Utah teen Grant Westcott is a triple threat—dancing like a pro, singing with superb technique, and convincingly portraying the transformation from eye-rolling teen to Santa’s biggest fan. (Westcott alternates with Austin Flamm.)

Christopher Gurr makes a similar transition from frosty disapproval to paternal warmth as Buddy’s father, Walter Hobbs. Mary Fanning Driggs as Walter’s harried but kindly wife, Emily; Howard Kaye, blustering comically as the publishing magnate Mr. Greenway; and David Baida, scoring laughs with his wide-eyed panic in the role of Macy’s Manager, also impress.

Under the direction of Alan Muraoka and choreographer Rommy Sandhu, the large cast sings and dances with verve. K.L. Alberts’ costume design and James Kronzer’s snow-globe set deliver a wealth of sight gags. The chorus line of sad-sack Saint Nicks in “Nobody Cares About Santa,” alone is worth the price of admission.

Entertaining as it all is, the pacing is bumpy, a problem that stems from the show’s book rather than the performances or any opening-night direction lapses. 

For example, Jason Simon’s sardonic Santa is so delightfully droll that it might not register that his opening monologue is longer than it needs to be. The leisurely beginning makes the ensuing frantic exposition at Santa’s shop seem all the more rushed.

And although you might be startled to see how much time has elapsed when you reach the end of this sugar-powered sleigh ride, two-and-a-half hours may be too long for a show aimed at kids of all ages.

Elf runs through December 18 at the Roy W. and Elizabeth E. Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre; 801-581-6961 or

Photo: PTC

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