Photos by Luis Escobar, Reflections Photography Studio

This production was scheduled November 9-December 23, 2023.

PCPA kicks off the holiday theatre season in style with a production that is guaranteed to warm the cockles of any Scrooge’s heart—and, by the way, kindle good cheer, laughter, and delight in the rest of us.

Elf the Musical really can’t miss, with enough impish quips for adults and an abundance of thoroughly entertaining special effects for kids (okay, we older ones appreciate the bubbles and snowflakes, too). And you simply shouldn’t miss the elves, who thanks to some creative costuming are a kick to behold, enchanting us and drawing us into the spirit of the production from the first number. Thank you to Jacqueline Heimel for her dandy and detailed costume work throughout, and a standing ovation to director/choreographer Keenon Hooks for introducing this delectable dish to our holiday table at a time when we can all use a good laugh and a dash of very good spirits.

If you’ve seen the 2003 film on which the show is based, you won’t notice much of a change in the story line—a really big elf discovers he’s really human and leaves the North Pole to search for his real family—with the exception of the absence of his adopted Papa Elf, who narrated the movie. Here, Santa (a svelte and resonant Erik Stein, grumpy and very funny) takes the reins, beginning the story (as all holidays should) watching football (“I had 50 bucks on Boise!”).

As the story unfolds to what can only be described as typical Broadway musical tunes—kicky, upbeat, and heartwarming—Buddy the human elf (resident artist George Walker channeling his inner Will Ferrell to perfection) ventures into New York City at Christmastime. And he gives us a very pleasant opportunity to encounter several PCPA veterans and professionals in action.

In addition to Stein, who is an associate artist and casting director at PCPA, we get to see some of the organization’s resident artists give us a lesson in how to entertain an audience: Christen Celaya (glowing as Jovie, a naysayer-turned-believer), Andrew Philpot (well-cast and always on the mark as the dispirited human father Walter who enjoys singing “Christmas always gets in the way”), Kitty Balay (elegant and warm as Walter’s wife Emily), Molly Dobbs (engaging as Walter’s stalwart assistant), and Don Stewart (who is also PCPA’s conservatory director acting—we have it on good authority he is not really the “evil boss” he so happily and convincingly portrays here).

There are so many things to praise about this production, but Jason Bolen’s set (assembled with a roster of some two dozen workers) is a marvel that must be singled out. It is paired with the terrific lighting design of Jennifer “Z” Zornow and her eight-member crew (including the beautiful and exacting work during the show by board and spotlight operators), and the stage management of Jack D. Myles and his ten-member production crew (the production’s charming set pieces float in and out without a hitch, and that includes a lighthearted take on Rockefeller Center). Altogether, including Heimel’s costumes (which were built and are wrangled during the production’s many costume changes by a team of 20), the polished look of the show is phenomenal.

With more than a dozen songs, the show runs more than two-and-a-half hours with intermission. At the first preview the sound was a tad logy, but thanks to music director Paul Marszalkowski, all members of the ensemble are in concert with a joyful playfulness that pervades the proceedings and it was barely noticeable. Walker as Buddy exceeds expectations with his vocal range, unfettered enthusiasm, and unrestrained physicality. He’s the perfect elf in human form, and Walker is a treat whenever he is on stage (which is pretty much most of the time). His bell-ringing must be seen to be believed, too.

Balay as Emily has a sweet duet with her stage son Michael, played during the first preview by an engaging Alex Robertson (he alternates with Caden Rennick throughout the run). Their strong and confident voices share a cute ballad in the first act (“I’ll Believe in You”) that sets the tone for what Hooks describes as the root of Buddy’s story: trust, childhood wonder, faith, and family.

More highlights: a man-size Buddy sitting—or rather trying to sit—on Santa’s lap in the first act; the choreography of eight Santa stand-ins singing “Nobody Cares About Santa” at the beginning of the second act; the big tap-dancing finale; and throughout it all that merry, glittering set gleaming with lights, stars, swirls, blue-striped candy canes and more.

So make room during your busy holidays for this cup of holiday cheer. Bring your kids, your family, your friends, and in particular any Scrooges you know who need a dose of goodwill and merriment. Elf the Musical runs through December 23 at the Marian Theatre in Santa Maria.

:: Charlotte Alexander